Monday, December 28, 2009

In-Between Week Notes

OK, I've been bad this month. Very, very bad. I'm so sorry. Work was busy, and I had the holidays creeping up. I've been more than usually unprepared for them this year, and the dreaded DC Snowpocalypse ended up postponing my yearly holiday party till after the New Year. But, for whatever reason, it's been hard for me to concentrate on my blog-related reading.

I have read some good books this month, few of which really qualify for this blog. Calvin Trillin's ALICE, LET'S EAT, for instance, which is fun food writing but hardly D&C material. OK, I admit, good D&Cers appreciate good food and good booze, but still.

Another good book was closer, Jeff Vandermeer's FINCH. I read that to review for Amazon, and it had one of the best reviews I've ever written. FINCH is more fantasy/sci-fi, really, but is fairly close to D&C material. It's basically a hard-boiled police procedural mystery, only in a fantasy city, Ambergris, the setting of some other Vandermeer works. In this, Ambergris has been invaded by Grey Caps, fungoid beings from beneath the earth, and the city is under occupation, and Finch (not his real name) is a detective assigned to investigate a mysterious death. It leads him into all directions, delving into resistance movements, spies from other city-states, petty criminals, and any number of other elements. It's sometimes rather disturbing in its depiction of a fellow detective whose body is being slowly taken over by fungus, or the descriptions of things like boats and buildings that give suspiciously under the narrator's feet and hands. It's like something from Cronenberg, circa NAKED LUNCH or VIDEODROME. A great read, and you don't need to read his other Ambergris stuff to understand it.

And, a personal milestone for me, I finally got through a Dickens work, an audio version of A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Breaking it up into bite-sized bits over a couple of months actually made it halfway palatable. And just when I was finishing it up, I found out about an interesting-sounding novel, A FAR BETTER REST by Susanne Alleyn, that's basically TALE from Sidney Carton's point of view, and giving a more historically accurate view of the French Revolution and the Terror. And REST turned out to be actually a lot of fun, with loads of good historical detail and also pleasing in its treatment of Sidney Carton, TALE's tragic antihero (because, let's face it, the "official" romantic heroes, Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, are dull as ditchwater), who's given real psychological depth and reasons for doing the things he does. REST also delves into an issue that Dickens never addressed...why do Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay look alike?

Also, it turns out Alleyn has a mystery series set in Revolution-era Paris, which I should delve into. That could be fun.

Finally, on Christmas Day, my sister and her husband took me out to see SHERLOCK HOLMES. Now, I had misgivings about it, to be honest...I like Robert Downey Jr. a lot, but as Holmes? Jude Law as Watson? Well, I have to admit...there were some aspects of it I didn't like much, but overall I did find it an entertaining film. The story involves black magic and Dan-Brown-ish conspiracies involving a Freemason analogue, but it did have an appropriately Holmesian conclusion. Rachel McAdams was a pretty good Irene Adler, although I'd love to see Carole Nelson Douglas' version of Adler brought to the big screen at some point. It has some respect for the source material, unlike Laurie King's "Mary Sue" version of the Holmes canon (as you can guess, I dislike her works intensely), and does address an aspect of Holmes that is frequently overlooked: his physicality. While brilliant mentally, Holmes was also an excellent boxer (according to Watson) and could more than hold his own in a fight. Still, sometimes I wasn't entirely comfortable with the Ritchie/Downey beefcake Holmes, especially when they sexed him up a bit with broad hints of an on-and-off affair with Adler. But it's never dull, the plot is comprehensible, if a bit overly baroque (then again, the same was sometimes said of Doyle), and visually interesting. It's also a kissing cousin to Pitof's VIDOCQ, which I need to write about someday, as that flick was one of the things that got me moving to create this blog.

What's coming up? I've got the week off, but I'm looking into enhancing the wardrobe and doing some other things. Not sure yet what I'm doing for New Year's, and if the weather's ugly I may just stay home. I know, sounds pathetic, but I'd rather stay home than risk my neck on slippery streets. I've got a lot to read, including some more Wakefield stories, so stay tuned.

And just for the heck of it, here's a recent shot of my parents' cat, Lobo, snoozing in his favorite spot. This oughtta bring in the cute kitty lovers.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

THE CLOCK STRIKES 12 by H. R. Wakefield

Actually, it's more like "stories from THE CLOCK STRIKES 12" since this paperback, despite the ultra-cool cover illustration (by an uncredited artist), is not the full text of Wakefield's 1940 collection, but "highlights", one supposes.

H. Russell Wakefield is one of the great giants of the traditional English ghost story, but this collection is not his best work; in fact, this marks the start of Wakefield's decline, when his work was marred by sadistic endings and trite revenge plots. And I have to say...few of the stories in this book are particularly memorable, although some have their moments.

So, to do a rundown...

"Into Outer Darkness" is the basic tale of two people spending a night in a haunted room and experiencing Horrible Things. It's hard for me to be thrilled by this because it's got the sort of ending that I've heard a million times before; I can't be sure if this was the first or what. But it doesn't seem fresh.

"The Alley" tells of how Vulgar Rich People buy an Old House With A Haunted Room, and then Horrible Things happen. Despite its clunky plot, I have to admit, it's got some moments of shuddersome atmosphere and the haunting is given an interesting backstory.

"Jay Walkers" isn't much of a story, more like a padded vignette about a haunted stretch of road, and an investigation into the backstory. Again, it has some moments of atmosphere, but that's about it.

"Ingredient X" has a gentleman of reduced circumstances renting a room in a boarding house that, of course, is haunted. Not terribly exciting or memorable.

"'I Recognized the Voice'" is a blah tale of psychic visions of murder. "Farewell Performance" is something that's now a familiar theme, a ventriloquist's dummy taking on a life of its own. Maybe original in its time, but after seeing a billion variations on the theme, it's not terribly interesting.

"In Collaboration" is a revenge tale of a writer who steals a friend's idea for a novel, and later finds himself hounded by the friend's ghost and unable to come up with any original ideas himself. OK for what it is. "Lucky's Grove" is one I've read before, a pointlessly nasty story of a Vulgar Rich Family that chops a Christmas tree from a grove sacred to Loki, and the Horrible Things that result.

"Happy Ending" also blah, of a psychic flash of a possible suicide. "The First Sheaf" is probably the most interesting of the lot, a tale of human sacrifice and pagan practices in a remote corner of England. "Used Car" is simply dreadful, a trite tale of a haunted automobile. And the closer, "Death of a Poacher," is another of those stories that I read twice and can't retain anything of it.

It almost pains me to be so harsh of someone who's a star of the ghost story canon, but this collection is definitely some of Wakefield's lesser work. Some of it is just flat-out bad. So many of these stories have hackneyed plot devices, but I will freely admit that it's possible they only seem hackneyed sixty years after they were published, after being repeated over and over until they're worn to a nub. But none of the freshness has remained.

Still, that cover illustration is great. If anyone can figure out the artist, I'd love to hear it.