Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year from Dust & Corruption!

I meant to post a few things before this, but the holidays and work and an obnoxious on-and-off illness have interfered. Still, it's time for a bit of partying!

On the 21st of December I attended a workshop called "Science is Murder," sponsored by the Washington Academy of Sciences. Authors Louis Bayard, Dana Cameron, Ellen Crosby, and Lawrence Goldstone all discussed how they handled the scientific content of their books. It was a very interesting evening and I got autographed books from all four, that I'll be reviewing in coming months.

I'm going out tonight, with two of my best friends, for dinner and then a burlesque show at the Red Palace, and it should be a lovely time. Since I allowed myself to daydream about the Phantom Ball (a pipe-dream about a Halloween dance party), I've found myself wondering about a New Year's Eve edition, only going for a different feel...a Belle Epoque, Parisian, Folies Bergere/Moulin Rouge sort of show, with a lavish buffet, champagne flowing like water, an orchestra and a program of cabaret songs and selections from Offenbach and Lehar and Strauss and Romberg and whoever else (no Gilbert & Sullivan, I am horribly sick of Gilbert & Sullivan), and a line of cancan girls at midnight. Kinda like this clip, from a production of Lehar's "The Merry Widow" in Geneva.

I've lately decided that the world needs more operetta, and not just G&S. Offenbach had a bit a revival lately with productions of "Orpheus in the Underworld" all over the place, and hopefully we can revive his other operettas as well. The French operettas are naughty (Offenbach's were often glorified peep shows), and Viennese operettas dealt openly with infidelity and sexual intrigues, and all had wonderful music and lovely waltzes. While they may not have the wordplay of G&S, their subject matter often makes G&S operettas seem overly cutesy and twee, and sadly dated where their French and Viennese cousins have aged much more gracefully. (Offenbach's "Orpheus" translates beautifully to modern times, with its theme of an unhappy marriage being enforced by the personification of Public Opinion, these days often played as a TV news crew. I'll freely admit that G&S's "Iolanthe" has political satire that's still relevant, and probably always will be, but others, like "Patience" and "Princess Ida," are more valued for their music and wordplay rather than the relevance of their spoofery.)

So here's my cry for 2011...BRING BACK THE OPERETTA!

And have a wonderful and safe New Year's Eve, Dear Readers, and I'll see you in 2011.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Joseph Shearing's AIRING IN A CLOSED CARRIAGE and the Florence Maybrick Mystery

 Joseph Shearing was one of the many noms de plume adopted by Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long, (seen above) who is probably best remembered today for her work as Marjorie Bowen.  But as Joseph Shearing, she wrote a series of mystery/thrillers based on true murder cases that were well-regarded in their day and are ripe for rediscovery.

AIRING IN A CLOSED CARRIAGE (1943) is the story of young May Beale, the Virginia-born daughter of a cotton-growing dynasty, and of her marriage to wealthy John Tyler, a cotton broker of Manchester, in the 1880s.  May's marriage is a disaster; a well-bred and well-educated woman, she's out of place in working-class Manchester and in the house of her culturally-challenged parvenu husband.  John doses himself freely with patent medicines and is an arsenic-eater; he also keeps a mistress on the side and has fathered numerous children on her, as well as a number of other conquests.  May is pursued by a local roue, and is also the lust-object of John's vicious brother Richard, who seeks to destroy John's home and claim May for himself.

Of course, it all goes haywire; John becomes deathly ill, and eventually dies.  Was it his patent medicines or did May poison him with the arsenic?  Richard, jealous when she's suspected of an affair with the local stud, does his best to frame her for murder, and plays up the fact that May had begun to seek a divorce.  May stands trial and is convicted to hang, but her sentence is commuted to twenty years' imprisonment because it can't be proven if the arsenic she supposedly administered truly did the deed, or if it was the arsenic already in his system.  In the epilogue, she passes away, old and lonely and forgotten, rejected by her children, reflecting that her life was like an "airing in a closed carriage" (an instruction to the sequestered jury in her case), of always being boxed in and imprisoned, never truly her own person.

It kinda sounds like a soap opera, and it is a bit leisurely in its pacing, but I liked it a lot.  The first section, "Schoolgirl's Posy," introduces May and her suitors, and plays up their vulgarity and her naive delicacy.  Chapter two, "Lady's Posy," introduces May as Mrs. Tyler, struggling in her increasingly unhappy marriage, with children who are kept from her and servants who spy on her as much as they serve her.  "Invalid's Posy," the third chapter, is the longest, and may seem slow-moving until you realize that the chess pieces are being moved and things are being arranged, as the Tyler marriage deteriorates and implodes, May looks into a divorce, and John is suddenly taken ill.  "Prisoner's Posy" covers the arrest and trial, and "What Was Left in the Chocolate Box" briefly looks at her prison years.  And then the sad epilogue.

There's more than meets the eye, too.  Some might be a bit snobbish; Shearing has no sympathy for the nouveau riche Tylers, aping the style of the old-money families, slapping tacky art on the walls, serving badly cooked, heavy meals, and overpopulating the house with servants.  John Tyler has a library, not because he likes to read, but he just likes to be able to say to guests, "I'll see you in my library."  We're made sure to know it's a sadly neglected room.  May is a genuine old-money aristocrat, and realizes what a sham it all is, but also contributes to her own undoing by being feckless and passive and easily manipulated.

But...there's also some good feminist undercurrents, with May being denied simple self-determination and always at the mercy of the men around her.  And elements of class warfare, as servants turn on her viciously the moment she's suspected of murder, and interpret everything in the absolutely worst way possible, but also in John and Richard's treatment of May, viewing her as a tool or a decoration or a valuable asset, resenting her breeding and class but at the same time wanting it for themselves, but never truly seeing her or knowing her as a human being.

It's also left open to conjecture; did she murder her husband?  Shearing doesn't think so; it was either the poison already in John's system, or an honest attempt on her part to help him out by giving him a dose of arsenic.  A sympathetic lawyer speculates that it couldn't have been murder; she had too much to lose by his death, and everything to gain from a legal separation.

Another thing that makes it riveting is that it's based on a real case, that of Florence Maybrick, accused of poisoning her husband in 1889.

The novel follows the Maybrick case rather closely, changing names and the location (the real case was in Liverpool), and some circumstances.  In this case, the woman was most likely having an affair or two, but in both the novel and real life, the woman's reputed affair did much to prejudice the public and the judge against her...while the husband's philandering was not even an issue.

And Maybrick, like May, was probably innocent, but too much was stacked against her and she was railroaded into jail.  Modern readers might also feel outrage at the proceedings:  the judge was obviously violently prejudiced against her (and soon after the trial was committed to an asylum, where he died mad), evidence was poorly handled, new evidence arose that was ignored, and all sorts of things happened that should have led to an appeal and retrial, but it was never granted.  In both the novel and reality, the woman was accused of trying to make poison from arsenic-laden flypapers, but it was common for women to use that in skin treatments.

Florence Maybrick, born in Mobile, AL, spent 14 years in prison, and when she was released, returned to the US.  She wrote a book about her experiences, but it didn't sell, and an attempt at a lecture career also failed.  She eventually became a recluse, dying in a squalid cabin in Gaylordsville, CT, in 1941, at the age of 79.  Two years later, Shearing's book came out, and in 1947 it was filmed as THE MARK OF CAIN with Eric Portman and Sally Gray, and with a script co-written by stellar mystery author Christianna Brand.

I read this as an interlibrary loan book; it's out of print but there's copies to be had here and there; I've found some listed on the aether listed for $5 or so.  It's worth seeking out, and while it may seem slow-paced, it's got the slow buildup that modern readers don't appreciate. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tales of the Shadowmen: The Modern Babylon

This is another case of "Great cover!"

The first in a series of anthologies from the good folks of Black Coat Press, these are different because they feature primarily characters from French pulp fiction, mingling with some other creations.  For instance, the cover depicts a confrontation between Feuillade's Judex and Mary Shelley's Creature.

The stories are not merely "new adventures" of popular characters, but crossovers.  Unfortunately, there's a few stories in here that function only as opportunities for characters to meet; however, at their best, the stories have a narrative that brings them together organically.

The cover illustrates "The Mask of the Monster" by Matthew Baugh, a decent story about the Creature surviving into early 20th-century France (and it's not bad for being his first work of fiction).  Bill Cunningham's "Cadavre Exquis" suffers not only from trying to cram too much into a short story, but also from a bleak outlook as the heroic Fascinax's efforts turn out to be futile.  And veteran TV writer, producer, and novelist Terrance Dicks of Dr. Who fame, gives one of the most unsatisfactory stories in the bunch, "When Lemmy Met Jules", which basically is only a meeting between Lemmy Caution and Jules Maigret, with minimal plot.  Yawn.

Up next was Winn Scott Eckert's "The Vanishing Devil," which featured Doc Ardan, Jules Maigret, and Sherlock Holmes, and was pleasant enough but not overly memorable.  Viviane Etrivert's "The Three Jewish Horsemen" is a delightful romp with Arsene Lupin and the Phantom of the Opera.  And I really liked G. L. Gick's "The Werewolf of Rutherford Grange," largely because it's being serialized and can afford to take its time.  It had good atmosphere and was more focused on story rather than throwing together as many characters as possible...which is a problem with Rick Lai's story "The Last Vendetta," which I felt was simply overpopulated with various characters and the dialogue existed mainly so people could drop pop-culture references.

Belgian author Alain le Bussy contributed the brief but very fun "The Sainte-Genevieve Caper" that has a meeting between Arsene Lupin and Sherlock Holmes (who crossed swords several times in Maurice Leblanc's original Lupin novels).  Jean-Marc and Randy L'Officier (who edited this collection, by the way) contribute the amusingly Lovecraftian "Journey to the Centre of Chaos."  "Lacunal Visions" by Samuel T. Payne is an adventure of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, against a villain who seems to be a distant relative of Dr. Who.  And Dupin shows up again in John Peel's "The Kind-Hearted Torturer," only this time having him connect with the Count of Monte Cristo.

"Penumbra," by Chris Roberson, was a lot of fun for me to read, as it not only crosses Louis Feuillade's two creations, Judex and Les Vampires, but also throws in Kent Allard, aka "The Shadow" of pulp classics, for good measure.  "The Paris-Ganymede Clock" was an interesting bit of steampunk from veteran sci-fi scribe Robert Sheckley.  And the collection is rounded up by Brian Stableford's mini-epic "The Titan Unwrecked; or Futility Revisited," which mixes fictional characters with real-life writers and millionaires on a luxury ship cruising across the Atlantic.

Is it worth reading?  Oh hell yeah.  Despite a few missteps, it's still a fun way of introducing yourself to some lesser-known characters, and there's fun and adventure to spare.  The best pieces are actual STORIES, not merely literary contrivances, and for savvy readers, there's often a smile or a chuckle to be had.

This is the first in a series from Black Coat, and while there's room for improvement, the level of quality is still very high.  Not quite required reading, but damn close.

The Phantom Ball...ushering in December

I decided to rename my "Musical Interlude" posts to something a bit more for this orchestral piece, it's after my pipe-dream dance party, the Phantom Ball.

Outside, it's a cold, blustery night, the face of the moon occasionally passing behind wind-torn clouds.  The ballroom of the old house is hung with mouldering hangings and festooned with cobwebs.  The candelabras have gone unused for decades.  But a strange bluish light shines from them, as the music starts from unseen hands.  Soon the room is full of waltzing couples; a former owner dances with his wife, who poisoned him.  Another dances with his mistress.  A butler and a maid dance among them; in death, all are equal.  Two men waltz together; a century ago they died in a strange suicide pact.  Some couples are dancing as a punishment, being confronted with the sins they committed while alive; others are united in death with those they couldn't be with in life.

And when it's over, the dust on the floor is undisturbed, and the mortal observers, peeking in the door or through the window, aren't sure if it was real, or their imaginations.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

THE DEVIL'S MISTRESS by J. W. Brodie-Innes

What a lurid title!  What a lurid cover!  And yet, underneath it all, it's actually quite a good historical supernatural novel, based on what's known of a real case of witchcraft in 17th-century Scotland.

Isobel Goudie (sic) is the intelligent, passionate daughter of an attorney, used to an exciting life with her prosperous father.  However, due to various machinations, she ends up in an unhappy arranged marriage with a cloddish poor farmer.  She was raised Catholic, but he's a devout Protestant, and demands she renounce her Catholic baptism.  She's generally miserable, and an attempt to spark up her loveless marriage is useless.  But soon she meets a handsome stranger and is drawn to him, and through him is initiated into a coven of witches.  Soon her life is a whirl of spells and enchantments, and she sees beneath the facade of local respectability.  She even visits the Fair Folk for a while.  But in the end, her conscience and devotion to her friends has her breaking from her love and her coven, and putting her own life in jeopardy.

Isobel Gowdie (the more common spelling) was a real person who was tried for witchcraft in 1662.  Apparently she confessed voluntarily; there are no indications that she was tortured or interrogated in any way; she seemingly just walked up to the authorities one day and said, "Oh by the way, did you know I'm a witch?"  Her confessions are very lengthy and detailed...and also out of sync with other known "facts" about witchcraft at the time.  In fact, she established a few cliches that were unknown before her confessions were made public.  It's debated if she was truly involved in some sort of coven or cult, or if she was mentally ill and her confessions were the work of a bizarre inner fantasy life.  There is no record of her being executed; was she done to death, or did they decide she was crazy and put her away?  (I once saw her name used by a Wiccan as an example of one of the "millions" who were "tortured and executed" for witchcraft...but as far as is known, Gowdie was never tortured or executed, and the best estimates place the number of people executed for witchcraft, based on available documentation, is below 100,000.)

Naturally, Brodie-Innes takes the view that she was a real witch, at least for the purposes of this novel.  But she's not simply a cackling caricature.  Isobel is a fully-realized human being, of whom another character says that she "would either be a great sinner or a great saint."  She genuinely tries to make her marriage work before giving in to her otherworldly lover.  She truly cares for her friends and stands by them when they need her.  She wonders if her lover truly is Satan himself or just a roaming charlatan who knows some conjuring tricks.  And yet she gleefully partakes in the coven's hunts, and puts her enemies under dire enchantments.  And she often wonders if her supernatural adventures were just dreams.

That's one thing I truly liked about THE DEVIL'S MISTRESS; her spells and bizarre adventures with her coven are treated in a hallucinatory, dreamlike way.  She'll often be in another part of Scotland as part of her working an enchantment, but then get tired, fall asleep, and wake up in her own bed.  Sometimes I was tempted to think they truly were dreams, or drug trips, but another thought is that Brodie-Innes was thinking of them as astral projections, although that is never made explicit.  Her workings of magic are given quite a bit of attention and detail, but are never tedious or repetitive.  They're just more elements of the world the author creates.  And he knew his stuff.

John William Brodie-Innes was a Scottish lawyer and bibliophile, but was most notably a prominent member of the Golden Dawn, and a significant figure in Victorian and Edwardian occultism and mysticism.  He was a close associate of MacGregor Mathers, and reportedly gave Dion Fortune her training in the occult, and was the inspiration for her occult detective character in THE SECRETS OF DR. TAVENER.

I've read supernatural and horror fiction by occultists before, and Brodie-Innes is head and shoulders over all of them.  All too often, an occultist's passions and beliefs translate into tiresome preachiness and didacticism, and good storytelling, plotting, and characterization take a back seat.  Fortune's Tavener stories exist mainly to teach her views on occultism and psychic phenomena; another set of supernatural tales by Madame Blavatsky has its moments ("The Ensouled Violin" is flawed, but haunting) but overall is spoiled by her intention of communicating her worldview to the reader.

But Brodie-Innes simply creates a world and some fully-realized characters to populate it.  Isobel is sympathetic and strong, especially when she realizes she has to part ways with her lover when she realizes she must be true to herself and the people she cares for.  He never preaches or condemns, never tries to explain why the spells work or the nature of her experiences; they simply are

I read an old copy, a 1974 printing by Sphere that is Vol. 11 in "The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult" that from what I've seen ranges from some genuine classics to some total crap.  But it's back in print (courtesy of Ramble House) and it's worth a read.  Gowdie has appeared in other novels, like ISOBEL by Jane Parkhurst, and NIGHT PLAGUE by Graham Masterson.  Gowdie's "spells" have made their way into poetry anthologies, and she's also inspired songs by artists like Creeping Myrtle and Alex Harvey.  Both Maddy Prior and Inkubus Sukkubus have used Gowdie's words in song.  And modern composer James MacMillan composed a 1990 orchestral piece, "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie," which has met with critical and audience acclaim.

So look for Isobel; she's well worth it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gothic at the Root: Walpole's THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO

So I recently tackled the great-granddaddy of all Gothic novels, the seminal work that influenced generation after generation of writers and readers, ranging from the most debased hack to stellar artists like Jane Austen.  Written by Horace Walpole in 1764, THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO is nearly 250 years old, so the casual reader of today can hardly be blamed for approaching it with trepidation.  But it's quite short (modern editions are frequently omnibus volumes with other short novels, or padded out with histories, critical essays, notes, and other stuff), so it's not too threatening.

How does it read in this day and age?  Quite well, actually.  The phrasing avoids the turgid purpleness one can find in later gothic novels (ranging from the three-volume monstrosities of the 1800s to the crappy 70s paperbacks that clutter up your local friendly used-book emporium), it moves briskly, and there's rarely a dull moment as in every few pages something new is thrown at the reader.

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO purports to be an actual translation of an Italian manuscript (printed in Naples in 1529, and then rediscovered in the library of an old Catholic family in the north of England) about the downfall of Manfred, the Prince of Otranto during the Crusades.  Manfred plans to marry his sickly 15-year-old son Conrad to Isabella, the daughter of the Marquis of Vicenza, but before that can happen Conrad is killed by a giant helmet that falls from the sky.  (Yes, you read that right.  It just falls out of the sky, WHOMP, and little Conrad is just a smear, and all this happens in the first few pages.  Walpole doesn't waste time.)  After a hasty funeral, Manfred informs Isabella that he's going to divorce his lawful wife Hippolita and marry her instead.  A peasant, Theodore, announces that the helmet is identical to one worn by a statue of Prince Alfonso the Good (a former ruler of Otranto) in the nearby chapel of St. Nicholas.  Manfred imprisons him, then goes after Isabella.  While hiding from the priapic prince, Isabella meets Theodore, and they venture through an underground tunnel to the aforementioned chapel, and then...oh, I won't recount it all.  There's a lot of plot and counterplot, subterranean passages, secret panels, more pieces of giant armor showing up, a real giant appearing here and there, a bleeding statue, a skeleton in a hermit's robe, a confrontation in a cave, a portrait that steps out from its frame, romantic intrigue, murder, ghosts, and an apocalyptic finale.  (And interestingly enough, it seems that there was a real Manfred, a ruler of Sicily from 1258 to 1266, and some details of his life may have inspired the novel, and he DID own a castle called Otranto...but that's all remote and tenuous.)

CASTLE is full-throttle Gothicism from start to finish; I can't help but wonder if Walpole was aware that he was essentially writing the handbook for a new literary style.  And so much of it is so over-the-top, it often seems as if Walpole had his tongue firmly in his cheek while writing it.  There's often a feel that this is all a joke, as if he was wondering if he could write something as absurd as possible and pass it off as a real document.  I don't know if anyone really swallowed it, but in the second edition he owned up to it and admitted he made it all up.  The characters are given little depth or backstory, and the few that do have backgrounds have them only as plot devices.  Manfred has the most depth of any of them, and is the first of the great Gothic hero-villains who came to dominate the genre.  He has nobler instincts and knows the difference between right and wrong, but is too driven by sexual lusts and personal ambitions to let his higher nature guide him.  Sometimes he seems to truly hate himself for what he's doing, but then his passions overcome him and he goes ahead anyway.  He swings between relishing the mayhem he's causing, and repenting of it.  He's juicy fun.

It's also interesting to see that OTRANTO is free of the Catholic-bashing that came to dominate the genre in later years.  And it doesn't shy away from the supernatural, unlike later novels that played a Scooby-Doo game with it, like in Mrs. Radcliffe's THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO.  And it has to be said that some of Walpole's supernatural terrors lack bite, either because we're modern readers used to far worse, or because they're a bit ridiculous and may not have been intended to be all that horrifying.  But the scene of the talking skeleton still packs a whallop; while I giggled at some of the other things going on, that part actually gave me the shivers.

Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford (1717-1797) published a handful of novels, but was also an art historian, letter-writer, antiquarian and politician.  He was a member of Parliament from 1741 to 1768.  He also built Strawberry Hill, a Gothic architectural fantasia that along with OTRANTO is his most enduring work.

He also wrote a ton of letters, coined the world "serendipity," and wrote about the history of painting and gardening.  Strawberry Hill and OTRANTO were both big influences on a revived interest in medievalism and gothicism that reached its peak in the Victorian age, and was treasured by later architects and critics like Ralph Adams Cram.  And OTRANTO itself paved the way for modern writers, for which we should all be grateful.  He died childless and unmarried (there's been speculation that he was gay or asexual, nobody seems to know for sure), and the title of Earl of Orford died with him.

So should you read OTRANTO?  Absolutely.  It's good juicy gothicism, still highly readable, and worthwhile for anyone interested in the origins of modern horror.  Get a copy and read it to your friends on a windy winter night.

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO is available in modern reprintings in many bookstores.  You shouldn't have much problem locating a cheap copy in your favorite used-book store, though.  Obviously, it's in the public domain, and you can download free copies from various sites on the aethernet.  Librivox also has a free audio version for downloading as well.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

And now, a musical interlude for November

Now that Halloween is over, and the trials of the elections are past us, it's time to perk things up a bit.  Here's another recent discovery of mine, the Mandragora Tango Orchestra!

I've started to daydream of having my own club night/dance party, maybe called something like The Phantom Ball, with various groups appearing, like Mandragora or maybe Janet Klein or the Baltimore-based gypsy band Balti Mare.  Sigh.  Someday.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween from D&C!

I've had a wild October, not all of it pleasant.  Work has been busy, and I had a physical recently that resulted in being fussed at over my weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure (none of which requires medication yet, but still), and the revelation that I had a vitamin D deficiency (not all that surprising; I burn easily and with a family history of skin cancer, tend to stay out of the sun, and fresh milk upsets my stomach), but also there were some issues with my EKG that ended with a visit to a cardiologist.  Now, the EKG issues could have been the result of having chest hair (the sensors don't stick well and may not read correctly) and when I had a 2DEcho (kind of a chest sonogram) at the cardiologist, the technician didn't scream and run for the doctor, and they didn't hustle me into an ambulance and cart me off to the hospital, so hopefully there's nothing seriously wrong.

So, of course, that casts a pall over your October.  And then yesterday I was at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which was fun but exhausting.  I'm a centrist/liberal leaning guy, and I liked the rally's call for civility and reason (it took jabs at both sides, although the people there were clearly overwhelmingly part of the liberal/lefty camp).  But I had a couple opportunities for fun things to do that night, and had to pass on all of them because I was simply too exhausted.

So today, it's quiet, all the parties were last night, and I'm lounging around watching movies.  I hope my readers are having fun, whatever they're doing.  I may go see "Blood Sweat & Fears" again, but haven't made up my mind; it's either that or put on my black wool cape and go out and scare the kids in the neighborhood...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

There Will Be Bodily Fluids Other Than Blood: Molotov's "Blood Sweat & Fears III: The Red Velvet Curtain"

Just in time for spooky season, Molotov transgresses yet again!

"Blood Sweat & Fears III: The Red Velvet Curtain" is their latest assault on the sensibilities of the delicate.  Thankfully, my sensibilities are anything but delicate, so I rushed down for opening night, and got my favorite seat, in the front row, and sneered over my shoulder at the wimps behind me, all cautiously avoiding getting too near the stage.

It opens with the host Heironymus (Nate Newton) coming out and messing around with his harmonium (that's a musical instrument, OK?) and it seems that it's going to be a standard part of the show for him to pick out an audience member to help with the bellows...but then also hold a towel while he masturbates.  (Don't worry, it's a dildo and fake spooge.  Thank goodness for my experience on the burlesque stage, or I wouldn't have been able to handle it with the calm that I did.)  He sings an intro to the show (all songs composed by the very able Shawn Northrip), and then it enters into the real action of the evening.

"Blood Sweat & Fears III: The Red Velvet Curtain" is similar to their other BS&F shows; it's an evening of three short plays, although this time instead of English translations of French Grand Guignol horror, it's all original playlets (also written by Northrip) with a little entr'acte in between scenes.  (EDIT:  Mr. Northrip politely informed me that I'm giving him too much credit; they are indeed adaptations of old plays.  Ooopsie.  You know, one of these days I really should think about considering possibly writing these things with only two gin and tonics in me rather than three or four.)

The first, "Private Room Number 6," directed by Kevin Finkelstein, is a humdinger, about a corrupt general (Alex Zavistovich) hoping to lure an underage girl (Donnis Collins) to a hotel room for seduction purposes...but she has other ideas in mind, as becomes apparent when she starts asking pointed questions about his role in a torture investigation and a soldier who took the fall and later committed suicide.  There's some brutality...and surprisingly, a bit of raunch at the end.

Second up is "I Want To Go Home," directed by Lucas Maloney, is...I hate to say it...kinda weak.  Not to fault the performances at all.  Anna Brungart and Chris Zito play a frustrated married couple whose sex life is moribund; she stays home and knits while he goes out every night.  Donnis Collins is their sexy uninhibited neighbor who advises the wife on how to spark things up.  It's all good dirty fun, but the final punch is a bit lacking.

However, the entr'acte after that is a great little mime skit (Zito and Collins again) that could make a great burlesque act (I need to behave and not steal ideas, but still...).  And then the final act, "The Person Unknown," is definitely in the Grand Guignol tradition, in which a singer (Brungardt) who once performed at military-recruitment events is confronted by a mutilated returned soldier (James T. Majewski) who wants to collect on a promise she made, to kiss him when he returned.

While there's a part that may be a bit weak, it's still a great whole overall.  There's a running theme of the military; in addition to the arrogant general and the embittered solder, the middle act has references to a sergeant, if I recall correctly, and Zito's character, while not explicitly military, wears clothes echoing military uniform.  So the horrors of our current conflicts are coming home to roost on the theater stage.

Is it flawed?  No doubt, but still very much worth seeing.  There's not a bad performance in the bunch, the spooge and blood flow freely, and the songs are great.  And how long has it been since you've seen someone play the harmonium?  Everyone gives it their all, and all told it's a great entertainment for the Halloween season.

"Blood Sweat & Fears III: The Red Velvet Curtain" is playing 10/15 to 11/13 at 1409 Playbill Cafe, 1409 14th St NW in Washington DC.  Tickets are $20 a pop, and are available at Molotov's website.  Go see it, folks; like anything from Molotov, it's a blast.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It's pronounced cor-NETT

I was just interviewed by the podcast Double Meat, about gaming, being gay, being a nerd, being a gay nerd, burlesque, and why there needs to be more skeptical and atheist outreach to the GLBT community.  Didn't hit much on this blog, but I hope some folks come to visit.  (The header of this post comes from a conversation, when the host mispronounced my last name.)  Listen to it here.  And it's NSFW; very no-holds-barred.

And here's my official portrait as Prof. Leopold von Gröpenhanz:

It's October, so I'll be putting up some reviews.  I won't be able to do as much celebrating as I often do, largely because I had to shell out major bucks for some auto repairs last week, and BOTH my cell phone and iPod died within days of each other (the former replaced quickly, the latter will have to wait).  It's been difficult and I hope to have things back to semi-normal before Thanksgiving.

So stay tuned...

Monday, October 4, 2010

October's Musical Interlude

I recently found out about the group Bitter Ruin.  Kinda neat and macabre; check 'em out.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Late breaking news: Me. Onstage. Palace of Wonders.

My favorite club, The Palace of Wonders, will be shutting its doors for renovations and renaming; it's been bought out by the club next door, The Red and the Black, and I've heard it will henceforth be known as the Red Palace.  The future of the DC burlesque/vaudeville/variety scene remains up in the air, but we're hoping.

At any rate, tomorrow night (9/29) there will be a big Grand Finale show, and I'll be onstage, in the guise of my new stage persona, Prof. Leopold von Gröpenhanz, as "stage tiger" (as in the guy who picks up the junk left over from various acts) and maybe whatever else may be needed (trick victim? assistant MC?  who knows?), so it'll be fun.  Maybe someday I'll MC my own show...

But anyway, if you're in DC and are free Wednesday night, c'mon by and say hi.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

D&C's DC: Tudor Place

One hot day over the summer, I took my camera down to Georgetown, partly for a ramble around the neighborhood, but mainly to get a look at Tudor Place, a historic-house museum and garden in the midst of all that urban bustle.

Tudor Place is a grand old house that was inhabited by a single family from 1805 to 1984, the Peters, who were relations of George Washington and who entertained many luminaries from American history.

The permanent exhibits in the house are largely centered on family life over the years, and rotating exhibits of things culled from family collections. Naturally, I couldn't take any photos inside, but I can tell you there's loads of cool stuff, including a 20s era study, loads of old books, and framed silhouettes in the drawing room. (I'm fascinated with silhouettes lately; they were quite the fad once upon a time and are charmingly old-fashioned today.)

But I nabbed some good snaps from the outside...

The southern view of Tudor Place; quite the grand place. The fences are planted with evergreens and lots of tall trees dominate the southern garden, so that even in winter you easily forget that you're in the middle of a city.

I found the floor of the portico fascinating for some reason.

A lovely Japanese tea house for outdoor dining, built by the house's last owner, Armistead Peter.

Overlooking the flower knot garden in the northern part. That's the grape arbor in the distance.

Another view of the knot garden, with a view of the sundial in the middle.

An odd little statue in a quiet corner of the garden.

The house's north face, viewed from a low angle in the garden. I like this shot, it gives the house a bit of an aura of mystery while not contriving to make it sinister or grotesque.

One of a pair of stone whippets that flank the entrance to the summer house and frame a view from there of the bowling green.

This lovely old fountain is one of several in the garden.

I loved this little lily pond in the bowling green area.

A view across the orchard area to the former tennis courts.

After Armistead Peter died in 1984, the house was opened four years later as a museum under the auspices of the Tudor Place trust, and is also rented out for weddings, picnics, and other events. House tours are $8 and well worth it. For researchers there's a manuscript archive as well. And it's only a few blocks from another favorite spot, Dumbarton Oaks.

Tudor Place is a gracious old lady, aging gracefully, clinging to some of her old ways and retaining a ton of her old-time charm, but still making enough progress to function in the modern world. Pay her a call when you're in town, won't you?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Three from the library, and some catching up

September has been a bit weird for me, and I haven't been able to focus on my recreational reading as much. Work is part of it, and also some other hassles in life (my car needs work, my doctor is retiring and I need to find a new one, and whoever heard of $75 being charged for a copy of your medical records?), but largely I've just been in a mood. We've bounced between cool autumn weather and relentless heat (it's 90 out right now) and it's been horrendously dry, so much so that instead of vibrant autumn colors we'll probably just have brown everywhere.

I did get some stuff read, so here's three quick reviews...

This won an Edgar in 2007 for best novel, and I want to know why. Not that it's bad, it's got good settings and interesting characters, but the story is so plodding and muddled that I found it difficult going.

What it has going for it is a meticulously researched setting: Istanbul in 1836. Yashim, a eunuch, is summoned to investigate a murder in the seraglio of the Topkapi Palace. There's also a question of threatening poems being nailed to a tree outside the palace, with veiled threats of a resurgence of the dreaded Janissaries, which had been forcibly disbanded (and mostly executed) a decade before.

Lots of potential there, but it rambles far too much, meandering here and there, spending too much time on what Yashim is cooking for dinner or the background of his transvestite dancer friend, and doesn't focus enough on plot. For those wanting information about Istanbul, it's probably good, but the didactic tone can take away from the energy of the story.

This was more like it. The fifth in Harper's series about Elizabeth I, and this time she's more comfortable with the characters and feels free to develop the plot. It kicks off with an attack on Elizabeth near a maze in her own palace, becomes complicated when a lawyer is murdered in the center of that maze, and gets dire as Bess and her court try to flee the plague striking London and figure out the identity and motive of the killer in their midst. There's some good stuff here about old English manor houses and garden mazes, and the climax is set in an unusual water maze, negotiated by boat. Good fun.

This was a pleasant surprise, a mystery set in the Regency that isn't suffocatingly twee and tries too hard to be humorous. Sebastian St. Cyr, a young nobleman with acute senses (given a good explanation) and a troubled family, is accused of the rape and murder of an actress, and must go on the lam to find out the real murderer. He gets together a good team, including a loyal street urchin, a disreputable doctor, and another actress (who happens to be an old flame). It's well-paced, nasty when it needs to be, full of good detail and twisted villainy. There's espionage, threats to the throne, and all sorts of fun. I can't wait to read the next book, I enjoyed it that much.

So there's three quick ones. I'm climbing out of whatever mood I was in, and hope to get back into regular posting soon.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

FUNGUS OF THE HEART, by Jeremy C. Shipp

Jeremy Shipp is a cool guy. He's the Bram Stoker-nominated author of books like CURSED and VACATION. He's a fan of THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, one of the funniest sci-fi spoofs ever made. And he's a friend of mine on Facebook and Twitter. And that's how I managed to read his upcoming book, FUNGUS OF THE HEART.

You have to love a title like that.

FUNGUS was a bracing change from the usual stuff I read. Shipp's not about the drawn, antiquarian horrors I so often read about. He's very modern, and while his stories are often as much fantasy or sci-fi as horror, they're all informed by a wonderful sense of feeling. Shipp's horrors are reflections of his characters' inner emotions and torments, and the stories that are played out are often the vicious result of the characters' pettiness or inability to cope with their feelings.

This is really at the forefront in "The Haunted House," a phantasmagorical ghost story narrated by a ghost who hires itself out to resolve mortal folks' problems with the supernatural. However, it's haunted by its own ghost, The Man in the Crate, who's a manifestation of...well, I'll leave that for the reader. But it's a good story, a nicely harrowing glimpse into the afterlife.

A similar story is "Ticketyboo," in which two children undergo a series of weird ordeals in a nightmare world where houses are made of glass and restaurant patrons eat sponges that make them vomit.

The brief "Just Another Vampire Story" uses fictional vampires as an element of a larger drama of infidelity and a relationship at a crisis point. "Boy in the Cabinet" looks at the human desire for, and fear of, seeking love, and our habit of being caught in the same traps over and over. The sci-fi/noir "The Sun Never Rises in the Big City" tells a tale of futuristic enslavement to explore the narrator's sense of status and entitlement.

"Kingdom Come" has special resonance for me, being set in a futuristic version of Kingdom Come State Park, which I remember visiting several times during yearly family visits to my grandmother and countless other relatives in Cumberland, KY. But it's also a great, effective dystopian story of a future prison and "filters" that manipulate our sensations.

There's also some good dark-fantasy/horror bits, in the title story and others like "Spider House" and "The Escapist" which have quests set against surreal landscapes, although the enemy isn't necessarily an external Dark Lord but interior darkness.

At every turn in these stories, Shipp demonstrates a macabre whimsy. He throws in all sorts of surreal stuff that wouldn't seem out of place in a children's fantasy, but it works as part of the story and for what he's trying to depict and reflect in his characters. He ends up comparing favorably to Jonathan Carroll in this regard, whose THE GHOST IN LOVE had all sorts of supernatural hijinx going on in a story that was basically an interior crisis made external.

This is the first Shipp I've read, and I hope to read more of his stuff in the future. He's hardly traditional, but he's definitely talented at using his stories' milieu to reflect what's going on inside their heads. And that's all too rare.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Musical Interlude for the September Mists

Here's a little Debussy, one of his Preludes. "Brouillards," which illustrates a rising mist...and perhaps, suggests what lies within?

I remember the mists of September mornings, and also doing a late-night drive on side roads between Winchester, VA, and Washington, and seeing the low-lying mists in hollows and meadows, and being thrilled by the sight and the mystery it evoked. Consider this a gearing-up for the autumn days ahead.

Monday, August 30, 2010

THE GHOST OF GUIR HOUSE by Charles Willing Beale

The last of Bleiler's "Five Victorian Ghost Novels" collection, this is a standout largely because it's the only one set in the U.S. And it's less about the supernatural as it is about occult philosophy.

Paul Henley, living in New York of 1893, receives a letter meant for another P. Henley who passed away, but is intrigued enough to read it. It's from a Dorothy Guir, asking P. Henley to visit her family at Guir House in Virginia. Henley, having time on his hands and possessed of an adventurous spirit, decides to go down and see if he can help.

Once he arrives, he finds Guir House in a dilapidated state, and its inhabitants, the lovely Dorothy and the elderly Ah Ben, both welcoming and secretive. Henley tries to probe the house's mysteries, but the reader soon knows that Dorothy and Ah Ben are not what they seem, and get annoyed with Henley when he's so slow on the uptake. Especially when Ah Ben gives interminable lectures on Theosophy, and even gives me a vision of the mystical city of Levachan that exists in the year 3000 when the world is full of spiritually advanced people.

It's all a muddle of occult woo-woo mumbo-jumbo that frequently doesn't make sense. There are some genuinely creepy and atmospheric bits when Henley explores the crumbling house, but the book is ultimately done in by its didactic content.

Not recommended! And I couldn't find a decent illustration of the author or the book cover, so this will have to do.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Required Reading: A PHANTOM LOVER by Vernon Lee

The fourth in Bleiler's collection FIVE VICTORIAN GHOST NOVELS, this is probably the most modern and psychological, a real contrast to the previous work, MONSIEUR MAURICE.

Also known as OKE OF OKEHURST (yawn-inducing, eh?), it's narrated by an artist who's hired by a Mr. Oke to come to his country seat and paint portraits of him and his wife.

Of course, it gets complicated. Mr. Oke is a nice enough guy, but bland and uninteresting. Mrs. different. Exotic, beautiful, intense, and intelligent, she's also obsessed with the story of an ancestor who had a passionate affair with a local poet. Said ancestress later murdered, assisted by her husband, the poet, for unclear reasons. And now Alice seems to be having an affair with the poet's ghost.

It's a great story, simply great. There's all sorts of hints about the state of their marriage. Oke complains about his wife's health, and at one point complains of not having children. Has the marriage been unconsummated? Why did they get married? Oke is intimidated by his wife, and is always on edge. The narrator notes that Oke is horribly shy, and that shyness is induced by a fear of making a fool of himself in his wife's eyes, and it's only when he's away from her that he can relax. Alice barely notices her husband, and takes no interest in his political work (in which he seems diligent, but undistinguished). She moons and obsesses over her ghostly lover, claiming that he visits her.

And in that lies the story's brilliance. This is in tune with Henry James' ambiguity in THE TURN OF THE SCREW (and Lee was a great friend of James, making me wonder...). We never see the ghost ourselves, and it's never truly confirmed that it's supernatural. Alice may just be mentally ill, obsessing over an old family story. Or this may be a story of domestic violence, of the psychological sort. Alice is doing it to relieve the tedium of her unhappy marriage, and to torture the husband she's come to loathe and resent.

Of course, it all leads to an act of violence, and a wonderfully ambiguous last bit that doesn't resolve much of anything, but does it in great style.

Vernon Lee's real name was Violet Paget (1956-1935), and was one of the great decadent writers, as well as a noted travel author and art critic. She was also a feminist, a lesbian, part of the Aesthetic movement, and quite the thinker on topics like psychology and people's reactions to art. She spent most of her life on the Continent although she wrote in English for an English audience; her longest residence was near Florence, and her library remains there, at the British Institute. She's best known these days for her supernatural tales, but reading some of her biographical material, she sounds like a fascinating person and I'd like to dip into some of her works on aestheticism. Lee's enthusiasm for art shows in this novella, where she paints great visuals of the Okehurst mansion and of the narrator's artistic work, and her grasp of psychology is remarkable. (The portrait above was painted by John Singer Sargent.)

Some critics have said this story is definitely supernatural, but it's not. There's a ton of ambiguity here and there's an extremely good case to be made for it being a case of psychological torture as a result of an extremely unhappy and ill-matched marriage. I'm happy to include this in the Required Reading list, and recommend that readers delve into Lee's other works. I've read some of her other stories in the past and enjoyed them all, and I can't help but think her works on art and aesthetics will be interesting. And the good D&C fan also appreciates art...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mark Your Calendar...IN BLOOD!

Just so my DC area readers know, and in case I actually have some DC area readers...

The date's been set for the Silver Spring Zombie Walk! The fun will be on Saturday, Oct. 23, with a special movie being arranged with the AFI Silver. The route has not been set yet; last year's crowd overflowed the starting point, the Quarry House Tavern, so there may be a move to a bigger venue this year.

Keep an eye on the official site, and maybe you can hang out with this handsome fiend...

(Yeah, that's me.)

So, hope to see some of you there...maybe there'll be a D&C team...

Monday, August 2, 2010

August's Musical Interlude

I got to see this group twice in as many days recently, during a rare east coast tour. They're my favorite band, and this particular song is appropriate, so even though I've featured them before, here they are again...Vagabond Opera, with their delightful song "Ganef"!

And here's some photos from the first concert, at the Palace of Wonders...

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Still Crazy After All These Years: RE-ANIMATOR at 25

I just got in from a showing at the AFI of Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR. I have to say...a quarter of a century later, it still packs a whallop.

Loosely, very loosely based on a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, it chronicles the adventures of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, in a star-making performance), mad scientist extraordinaire, as he experiments with a new "reagent" that reanimates the dead. He ropes in med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who's dating the dean's nubile daughter (Barbara Crampton, who was quite a sport for enduring this movie), and also has to deal with the hostile dean (Robert Sampson) and deranged brain specialist Dr. Hill (David Gale). And the result is gore galore.

When I first saw it (rented in the 80s from my small-town video store; I never saw it on the big screen until tonight), I was first a bit shocked by how it turned a Lovecraft work into a comedy. But then...I had to worked, like gangbusters. As a more mature horror fan, I read Lovecraft and see how easy it is to turn it into comedy; Lovecraft's over-the-top phrenzy is easy to parody. Combs' West is a great interpretation of the mad scientist; it's just restrained enough to make the character believable and somewhat sympathetic. West is obviously the smartest man in the room, and he knows it. He's unconcerned with emotion and ethics; everything is done to further his research, and while sometimes the things he does are shocking, they make sense from his viewpoint. The late David Gale had a ball, hamming it up as Dr. Hill; he later said in interviews that he thoroughly enjoyed the role and took an active part in developing Dr. Hill's personality.

What the flick is famous for is the cheerful over-the-top gore, in amounts that films today rarely touch. Not to mention one of filmdom's most gruesome sight gags, when Meg is strapped to the table and Dr. Hill is paying her some attention.

But what stands out for me now is the homoerotic subtext. West's recruitment of the hunky Cain as an assistant seems as much motivated by Cain's looks as his qualifications as a medical student. (We're never led to believe he's anything more than an average student.) The static existing between West and Meg is natural for rivals, and she's furious when she catches them together...well, in an experiment, but still. West and Cain's first human experiment is a tall naked hunk (played by Peter Kent, Arnold Schwarzenegger's stunt double). And when Cain goes into shock after an experiment goes awry, West's solicitous treatment is about as loving as he can get.

I've only seen the sequel, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, once, but I recall it carrying the subtext, with West doing what he could to hold on to Cain, even creating him a woman if it meant that Cain would hang around. ("Look, OK, I'll let you have a woman on the side, just stay with me! I need you!")

All that aside, it's stood up well. There was a second sequel, BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR, that I've never seen, and a fourth film, HOUSE OF RE-ANIMATOR, has been languishing in Development Hell for years (and the buzz is that it will never happen, but some still hold out hope). It's hardly totally loyal to Lovecraft (although a wonderfully funny and macabre scene, where a reanimated headless body sneaks into a morgue with a fake head strapped on, is lifted more-or-less directly from Lovecraft), but it's a breath of fresh air in an age when horror films tend to focus on killing as many teenagers as possible. It's flawed, sure (Meg is underwritten and an annoying character, and the technical crudeness shines through from time to time) but the nostalgia helps make up for any missteps.

Hardly a film for horror beginners, and not for those with weak stomachs, it's still a worthy rental (or even a purchase) for longtime fans.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

At the Theater: Molotov's THE HORRORS OF ONLINE DATING

It's Molotov's first musical! It's AVENUE Q with gore! It's a gleefully tasteless romp! And with far more depth and meaning that you might think!

HORRORS is the tale of Judy (Jenny Donovan), who's cruising for dates online under the name "Carrie." She has conversations with her cat, her laptop, and a bottle of antipsychotic medications (all played by puppets), and ends her hookups with torture and murder. She has a prickly situation with co-workers Donna (Karen Novack) and Kent (Graham Pilato), but eventually hopes to find salvation in the form of self-help guru Francis Rabassa (Lucas Maloney)....

It was about ten times the play I expected. Sure, it gets down to the brass tacks with a disembowelment in the opening scene, and blood flies left and right and up and down (plastic ponchos are issued to audience members as they walk in, and no, sitting in the back row won't save you), but it's pleasantly surprising by showing some real depth. Donovan, who was the innocent victim in MONDO ANDRONICUS, is exceptional here as Judy; it's a role easily played as an eye-rolling maniac, but she brings out Judy's loneliness, vulnerability, and confusion, until she becomes a sort of homicidal Everywoman who simultaneously evokes sympathy and terror. Her murders stop seeming gratuitous and instead are a symptom of a person who finds ways to hurt other people before they have a chance to hurt her. At one point she's asked about the last time she had sex, and maybe she wouldn't be so uptight if she actually would have sex instead of murdering people? Another time she explains her murderous habits by saying that it made her happy...but Donovan's expression tells that the happiness she finds is only fleeting.

Judy is a mess, seeking affection and affirmation willy-nilly, swallowing a motivational speaker's bulldada about how healing comes from within, but still expecting him to personally fix her. And she's lost in a world of duplicity; the men she meets are almost all cheating on their spouses, her friends are hiding their affairs from her, and her one ray of light is a cynical opportunist merely hoping to get in her pants. She depends on, and resents, her medication, and wishes her laptop would leave her alone. She's the ultimate alienated single person in today's screwy world.

Aside from Donovan's performance, the script by Shawn Paul Northrip touches on the many realities of dating in today's world. I kept thinking of the times I've met with less drastic treatment, dumped in various passive-aggressive ways, or used to find fleeting satisfaction and then discarded. It's something many of us have experienced, and Northrip simply takes it a few steps further.

The songs work well within the context of the show; nothing seems forced or ill-fitted. Donovan has a lovely singing voice, and the rest of the crew range from the serviceable to the pleasant. (OK, there's no major Broadway talent here, but it works.) The puppets and their puppeteers work very well. They're not simply people controlling the plushy puppets, but amalgamations requiring that you divide your attention between the puppet and the person. (In other words, they actually ACT.) Kudos to Luke "The Duke" Ciesiewicz as Frenziapine the antipsychotic medication, Julie Garner as the vampy, leggy Laptop, and Genevieve James as the petulant Mittens the Cat. James is delightful as a sort of Greek chorus appearing between acts, as a little girl jumping rope and making macabre rhymes commenting on the action. Alex Zavistovich isn't in the lead here, but does appear in a succession of victim roles...and takes his chance to add zest to the character of a philandering husband. But he's also the mastermind behind the show's gore effects, ranging from the aforementioned disembowelment to gunshot wounds, power tool murders, and amputated fingers. (In other words, wear something washable.)

This is part of the Capital Fringe Festival, and there's only a few performances left, so run and catch it!

Monday, July 19, 2010

MONSIEUR MAURICE by Amelia B. Edwards

The very name of "Amelia B. Edwards" summons up an image of a prim Victorian lady, and the above photo kinda reinforces that idea. However, it seems she was quite an interesting lady. Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (1831-1892) was a novelist, poet, journalist, suffragette, travel writer, amateur archaeologist, and passionate advocate for the preservation of Egyptian monuments. She published her first full-length novel at the age of 24, and in 1864 scored a big success with BARBARA'S STORY, a tale of bigamy, and later with 1880's LORD BRACKENBURY, her last novel, that was a runaway bestseller.

She was well-regarded in her time as a social and domestic novelist, but of her fiction, her ghost stories are the most remembered works these days. And gives us the third of Bleiler's collection, FIVE VICTORIAN GHOST NOVELS, although MONSIEUR MAURICE is really more of a novella, or extended short story, than a real novel.

Edwards' work as a domestic novelist shows in this. It's narrated by Gretchen Bernhard, in a flashback back to when she was six years old, shuttling from an unlikable aunt in Nuremberg to living with her father, an official at the Electoral Residenz at Bruhl in 1819. There, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, she becomes friends with a civilized prisoner there, the gentleman of the title. He's actually a very nice man, a polymath who's knowledgeable about the arts and sciences (his furniture includes a telescope and microscope), and serves as a sort of tutor to the girl. As years pass, there's an escape attempt, and then a poisoning attempt following the revelation of a plot, and both times Maurice's life is saved by the ghost of a faithful Indian servant. Eventually, the Elector uncovers that his imprisonment was wrongful, and he is released.

Sounds rather blah, but Edwards gives it enough detail and charm to be entertaining without being overly cloying. The story of Gretchen's friendship with the French prisoner is actually fairly pleasant reading, but one does get impatient for the supernatural content...and when it shows up, it's blink-and-you'll-miss-it, which is the problem. Being part of a collection of "Victorian ghost novels," one expects more ghosts. There's not much of a presence of the supernatural here; it just shows up when it's needed, and life gets back to normal. MONSIEUR MAURICE is probably the most stereotypically Victorian of the novels here, with its ordered content and the ordered lives of its protagonists.

So it's not great as a horror story, but works as a pleasant kindasorta coming-of-age tale with guest appearances by a ghost.

Edwards, however, got more interesting. Shortly after publishing MONSIEUR MAURICE in 1873, she embarked on a tour of Egypt, which resulted in her bestselling travel book A THOUSAND MILES UP THE NILE, and Edwards devoted the rest of her life and work to Egyptology, receiving three honorary degrees and endowing England's first chair in Egyptology, which appropriately went to her friend, Flinders Petrie, who defended her when she was being edged out of archaeology by sexism. And in the late 20th century, she inspired Elizabeth Peters' lady archaeologist, Amelia Peabody.

Edwards never married, and did her traveling with a female companion. (Can't help but wonder...) She actually made enough from her writing to be self-sufficient after her parents' deaths, so she didn't need to marry, but still, makes me a bit curious.

Anyway, MONSIEUR MAURICE is an OK story, but the story of its author is fascinating.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

At the Cinema: the (almost) complete METROPOLIS

Just got in from seeing the almost-complete cut of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS at DC's Avalon Theater.


OK, it's hard to write anything about this 1927 flick that hasn't been discussed to death before, but I'm going to go ahead and write a few things about it.

A quick rundown of the plot, for those who haven't seen it before. At some unspecified time, presumably in the future, there's a huge city, Metropolis. Underground there are dispirited workers who slave away at the machines that keep the city running. The city is the brainchild of industrial titan Joh Frederson. His son, Freder Frederson, is a spoiled child of privilege, romping in a luxury garden until he sees the lovely Maria (Brigitte Helm) leading a group of the workers' children into the garden, calling on the rich to see their brothers. Freder is taken by her beauty and at once is a convert to her philosophy, and goes to the undercity for the first time to see for himself the conditions of the workers. He witnesses an explosion at a giant machine and in a mini-nervous breakdown, envisions it as the fiery idol Moloch. He rushes to his father's office, but his father is uncaring, except for firing Josaphat for being behind in the news. Freder stops Josaphat from committing suicide and convinces him to be on his side. Freder returns to the undercity, switching places with a worker, and meets Maria again when she leads a church service/rally in which she promises a mediator who will be the heart that connects the brain and the hand. Naturally, Freder sees himself as that mediator.

Meanwhile, Joh Frederson pays a call on mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who was once in love with Frederson's wife, Hel, who died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang has now constructed a robot woman to take Hel's place, at the cost of his hand. Frederson has some charts that have been found on the workers, and Rotwang deduces that they lead to a chamber in the 2,000 year old catacombs beneath the city. The two go there and spy on Maria's lecture, and determine to make use of Rotwang's robot. In the now-famous transformation scene, the robot is made to look like Maria, and is sent to destroy the worker's trust in her.

Freder has a big nervous breakdown finding the evil Maria in his father's arms. Evil Maria does an erotic dance in the decadent Yoshiwara nightclub, embarking on a career of sin and depravity while inciting the workers to revolt. This is all Rotwang's doing, part of his own plan to destroy Frederson. Eventually, she leads the workers to destroy the machines...which leads to the flooding of the worker's underground city. The real Maria escapes and makes it to the city, in time to be joined by Freder and Josaphat as they rescue the worker's children. The workers realize too late what they've done, and hunt for Maria on the surface, chasing the good one until they finally meet the evil one, partying with her Yoshiwara friends. Evil Maria is burned at the stake in front of the cathedral, good Maria is almost killed by Rotwang until rescued by Freder, and a hopeful future is promised.

Quite a story, eh?

First off, I've seen it before, many times, and seeing the new footage is amazing. There's an entire subplot that was lost, in which industrial titan Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel) sends his operative, the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) to spy on his son Freder (Gustav Frohlich), and a lot of scenes with Frederson's former assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), in his city apartment and aiding Freder.

There's also short scenes that were cut that add dimension to the story. There's many reaction shots of Joh Frederson that let us see him as other than a sneering rich bitch, but as a man moved by what he's seeing, but not enough to make him sway from doing what he thinks is best for his position.

There's some bad, too. The extended cut lets us see how badly Helm chomps the scenery; her Evil Maria struck me as closer to Carole Lombard doing a parody of villainy. The final confrontation on the roof the cathedral goes on waaaay too long. Freder's character is inconsistent; one moment he's strong and driven by a sense of purpose, the next he's a weak, neurasthenic fool having hallucinations from his latest psychotic episode. The Thin Man seems fairly silly today, and Freder's interactions with Josaphat almost always include long hugs and extreeemely close face-to-face conversations, and I kept expecting them to start playing tonsil hockey right then and there.

But there's a lot that's interesting. METROPOLIS is a surprisingly Gothic film. Rotwang's house is a medieval pile almost forgotten in the towers of the city, and his laboratory seems equally scientific and supernatural. There's even hints of black magic with his robot, who sits before an upside-down pentagram.

There's the presence of the crumbling cathedral, complete with a statue of Death and the Seven Deadly Sins that animate during one of Freder's hallucinations. And a ton of Biblical references, to boot. Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel as a parable of brain vs. the hand. The Evil Maria dances dressed as the Whore of Babylon (seen in a Bible earlier) and finishes her number seated atop the ten-headed dragon on a pedestal held aloft by the Seven Deadly Sins. (Gee, symbolic?)

Of course, there's all the social/political/economic factors at work here. It can be seen as anticapitalist, as it condemns the exploitation of the working man by the oligarchy. But...the rebellion and mob rule of the proletariat is portrayed as counterproductive and self-destructive. The Bolshevik Revolution was still fresh in everyone's minds and one can suppose that there was quite a bit of commentary going on about that in here. The regimented life of the exploited workers can be viewed as both a result of unregulated free market capitalism and as the result of communism. There's definitely a criticism of mob rule going on here, when the workers destroy their own city and endanger their children's lives, then immediately nearly kill the good-hearted Maria, who only sought to improve their condition.

The film's message, applied with a sledgehammer, is that "The Mediator between the head and the hand must be the heart!" and it makes sense. METROPOLIS doesn't necessarily condemn or condone capitalism or socialism or communism, but is really a call for understanding and compassion between the levels of society, and an end to exploitation.

There's still sections missing; title cards talk about missing scenes of Freder seeing a monk preach in the cathedral, and a missing scene of Frederson's struggle with Rotwang. This cut is about 2 1/2 hours long; supposedly Lang's full cut was a full hour longer than that, and I doubt we'll ever see it.

It's making the rounds, folks, so go see this if you can. Despite a few flaws, it's still an amazing experience and well worth seeing. And I think it's due on DVD come fall...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Musical Interlude for the July Heat

It's hellishly hot here in DC, so I'm slouching around inside and listening to some music. I recently discovered Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys, who do songs from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, in the traditional styles. If only I could get them to come out to the East Coast...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Late breaking symbol for gays in horror?

I was glancing over CampBlood (check out the link to the right) and they ran a contest for a new symbol for gay horror fans. There used to be one, of a rainbow flag with the red stripe bleeding all over the rest of it, that I found rather alarming. The first time I saw it, I wasn't sure if it was meant to be gay-positive or gay-bashing. But then this new image won the vote...and I kinda like it.

Not much of a slasher fan, but I do like the fact that it's a more empowered symbol than the bleeding flag.

They talk a lot about TRUE BLOOD over there, and while I haven't watched it, I may have to start, now that I know it has actors like Joe Manganiello on it...