Monday, January 25, 2010

Jeffrey Combs as Poe in NEVERMORE

The 2010 Poe Birthday was extra-special. Instead of the usual assortment of acts, we had the east coast premiere of NEVERMORE, a one-man show starring Jeffrey Combs as Poe, and directed by Stuart Gordon, that genre stalwart who has given us such films as RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND and DAGON (and some stuff for Disney, but we'll forgive him that. For now.).

Written by Dennis Paoli (a professor of Gothic lit at Hunter College, and an accomplished screenwriter who frequently collaborates with Gordon, a natural given that they're life-long friends), NEVERMORE's stated goal is to recreate one of the public recitals that Poe gave in the last few years of his life, after the death of his wife Virginia. Combs, as Poe, steps on the stage, and flamboyantly announces that he'll be reading his most famous poem, without further delay...then delays and delays, reading other poems, reciting one of the stories, taking sips from a flask, calling on salutes to his then-fiancee Sarah Helen Whitman, getting more and more agitated and's really a chronicle of a public breakdown.

Except...well...that sort of thing never happened. Yes, Poe had a problem with alcohol, except he couldn't really be described as an alcoholic. It's been theorized that he had an allergy to alcohol, and that even a small drink could result in him blacking out. Poe would never have drunk from a flask on stage. And Combs plays Poe with a Southern accent...which is not historical. Poe spoke very proper English, partly because being a Southerner would have resulted in him being dismissed by the literary establishment he sought so much to become a part of. My friend, actor/director/Poe scholar Dave Spitzer, and I were both puzzled by the Southern accent, not to mention a few other aspects of the show.

The show's flaws are softened when you stop thinking of it as a re-creation of one of his public recitals, and instead as a symbolic psychodrama of Poe's tortured inner life. In that respect, it's a great representation of how Poe was simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-sabotaging. We see his tortured relationship with alcohol, his feelings of loss for Virginia, his genius with poetry and prose...but also his bitterness toward literary rival Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (which also was hypocritical; Poe lambasted Longfellow for courting a wealthy widow when that's what he did himself after Virginia's death), and his inability...or let go of Virginia.

And some other flaws were a result of my own bias. During the show, Combs/Poe recites "The Tell-Tale Heart," a story that I am extremely tired of hearing. Sometimes it seems that every damned Poe impersonator has to use that in his repertoire, and probably as the only work to rely on. And sure, it's a great tale for showing off an actor's chops as he recites the murderer's confession. But's overdone. I'm tired of it. Let's do another tale, can we?

Comb's Poe also goes waaaay over the top in his recitations, partly with the drink and partly carried away by his own opinion of himself, so much so that a few times I found myself tuning out of his wild cadenzas. Horrible thing to admit, I'm sure. But it did get fascinating during the drunken recital of "The Bells" that ends up being a train wreck.

After an emotional blow, Poe finally, finally recites "The Raven," and then closes intoning that all is "a dream within a dream" as the lights go down and all we see is his face, limned by a single candle. It's an effectively eerie closer.

Despite a few problems, it was very well-acted by Combs, who shows himself an actor of true range and versatility. And as Dave pointed out, the stagecraft is excellent, with Combs making full use of the space and not being bound by it.

Gordon and Combs did a Q&A after the show, which got interesting. There were a few questions ranging from the thoughtful to the frivolous, but one lady seemed to be quite irate and upset at how she felt the show denigrated Poe's genius, and objected to any depiction of Poe having a problem with alcohol (umm, lady, it's documented and known), and seemed to regard the show as an insult. She voiced her objections, but seemed more interested in ranting, to the point that a lady near me called out, "Is there a question?" that put an end to it. I heard her talking to a friend as folks were walking out; she sounded as if she were close to tears. She really seemed to be taking this to heart.

To be fair, I can see where she's coming from. But as much of a genius that Poe was, he was also a human being, and a deeply flawed one. He had many problems and probably quite a bit of his genius came from those problems, and to turn away from those problems is to deny ourselves a true appreciation of his genius. It's an old debate, how personal torment can fuel genius. I once saw someone wonder if the Brontë children wouldn't have had better lives if they'd had therapy...but could they have produced such wonderful literature?

Also in the show...

Poe Museum director Jeff Jerome spoke briefly about the Poe Toaster. Nobody has any idea why he hasn't shown up this year, but the best theory is that after the Poe Bicentennial last year, he's decided to hang up his cloak. That's something that occurred to me as well. They'll wait until next year, and if he skips 2011 as well, they'll give up on him.

I also got to see with my own eyes the famous watercolor portrait, and got an earful from the owner's wife. It seems it was purchased as part of a large lot of old prints, and cost pennies, because the auctioneer had no idea what it was worth. It's simply gorgeous, delicate yet vibrant, in a way that online reproductions can't duplicate.

It was a pleasant afternoon. I caught the Sunday show, as I had obligations Saturday night (ushering at a performance of the Washington Ballet, and then hastening to see some friends performing in a burlesque show). NEVERMORE is to tour this year, although no schedule has been finalized. If it turns up in your area, look into it. Despite its flaws, it's worth it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thoughts in an Amontillado Glass

This is biggish news...a previously unseen portrait of Edgar Allan Poe has finally seen the light, and will be publicly unveiled this weekend in Baltimore. It's to be auctioned off later this year, hopefully catching $10,000 or more. Isn't it delightful? It's a different Poe than we're used to seeing; he's healthy and good-humored, probably in one his better moments. As many others do, I value his gothic works, but lately I've developed a huge appreciation for his humor and satire. He was a funny man, that Edgar.

This weekend is the Poe Birthday Celebration in Baltimore; I sent off for my ticket but I was a bit late and haven't heard yet if my ticket has been reserved. I may have to drive up on Sunday afternoon and stand in line and hope for the best.

And today is Poe's birthday, and I am horrified to report that the Poe Toaster did NOT show up last night. I can't help but wonder...what's up? Did the guy doing this lose interest? Was he ill? Did he just give up after the bicentennial? Or will he be out there tonight?

If any reader is planning on lurking out there tonight, I expect a report.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Musical Interlude

A solo piano version of a piece from a ballet, about a ballroom where cursed aristocrats dance themselves to death with the ghosts of wronged lovers...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Last year I read Dalby's GHOSTS FOR CHRISTMAS, so this year it's the follow-up, CHILLERS FOR CHRISTMAS. And I enjoyed this more than the first. GHOSTS had some great stories, but sometimes wandered too far into the touching/heartwarming/twee zone. CHILLERS, though, isn't as constrained and can go farther afield from strictly ghosts...although they're here, in abundance.

It's replete with supernatural terrors, of course, but there's also some more generalized supernatural terrors, as well as some plain thrillers and works of cruelty. And a couple of humorous stories to leaven it all.

So, to do the usual rundown...

"The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes" by Rudyard Kipling. A British soldier in India finds himself stranded, in the Christmas season, in an inescapable village, termed "the Village of the Dead." Apparently once there, always there, until the narrator seeks to find an escape. No supernatural terrors here, just a harrowing and grotesque situation.

"Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk" by Frank Cowper. Originally published in Blackwood's, this is one of their patented "predicament" tales in which a narrator finds themselves in a dangerous situation. (This was lampooned by Poe in "The Scythe of Time" and lived on in Reader's Digest as "Drama in Real Life.") The narrator, visiting a shore village at Christmastime, goes duck-hunting in the marshes and ends up stranded aboard a derelict ship as the tide rises and darkness falls. It's relentlessly atmospheric on those counts alone, but when eerie sounds start to replicate what seems to be a long-ago murder, it becomes a chilling classic. This tale is often anthologized, and is an effective little gem.

"The Phantom Riders" by Ernest Suffling, is a fun gothick tale of ghosts repeating a gruesome murder, and its aftermath. Amelia B. Edwards' "The Guard-Ship at the Aire" is another Predicament tale, this time of a man who is nearly killed by a rising tide while crossing a river delta. It's not just chance but human malice that got him on the wrong track, as is revealed in the tale, making this nastier than usual.

The authorship of "Horror: A True Tale" is debated, but it's a nasty tale of a girl who goes to her bedroom after a Christmas party, only to find herself the hostage of an escaped homicidal maniac. It's amusing, but the prose is undeniably purple and overwrought, making it rather unintentionally funny. "A Pipe of Mystery" by G. A. Henty tells of soldiers in India who do a good turn for a local mystic, and then receive psychic visions that save their bacon in the future. This isn't very Christmassy, but ekes through on a technicality: it's framed by a story of an aged man telling his young relatives a tale at a holiday party.

"On the Down Line" by George Manville Fenn is interesting, a Christmas railroad suspense story, with a possible ghost on a train. "An Exciting Christmas Eve" by A. Conan Doyle is a darkly humorous tale of a pompous expert in explosives who is kidnapped and made to lecture on bombs to a collection of anarchists.

Guy Boothby's "Remorseless Vengeance" is a nautical tale of spectral revenge, a bit different for its South Seas setting (Boothby was Australian). "The Vanishing House" by Bernard Capes is a minor classic, coming across almost as a folktale. A group of wandering musicians on Christmas Eve find themselves at a large house where a party seems to be taking place...but is it what it seems to be?

Dick Donovan's "The White Raven" is an odd mixture of Victorian piety and sentimentality with supernatural terrors. In fact, the supernatural elements of the story (a room haunted by a white raven that's an omen of disaster for anyone who sees it) is more of a plot device that allows Donovan to praise the narrator's idealized selflessness.

"The Strange Story of Northavon Priory" by F. Frankfort Moore (Bram Stoker's brother-in-law) is an OK tale of a house haunted by spirits of its diabolic past. "The Black Cat" by W. J. Wintle is a typical tale of the "person plagued by a spectral animal for no discernible reason" genre, although a fairly well-done example.

John Collier's "Back for Christmas" is a great sample of that author's talent for black comedy. An academic murders his hated wife and buries her in the basement just before a lecture tour abroad...only to be undone by a wry twist at the end. "A Christmas Story" by Sarban was my least favorite of the volume, a difficult-to-read tale that seemed to involve cannibalism, and maybe Yeti, but never really seems to go anywhere.

L. P. Hartley's "The Waits" explores the dark side of the holiday, as carolers turn out to be messengers from beyond, and they won't go until they get what they came for. And it ain't figgy pudding. Shamus Frazer's "Florinda" is another familiar formula, of a child's imaginary friend who may not be so imaginary, but it's got good atmosphere and a harrowing climax.

R. Chetwynd-Hayes' "The Hanging Tree" was a fairly muddled and unsatisfactory tale of a ghost that seeks to have a human body...maybe...and a woman who may be trying to help, or may only be a homicidal maniac. "The Grotto" by Alexander Welch is a good little tale of a weary department-store Santa who's visited by a child's ghost...but it avoids too much cutesiness with some genuine fear and a chilling end.

"Just Before Dawn" by Eugene Johnson is all about supernatural justice, as a down-and-out derelict reflects on the man who betrayed him and got away with it. "Buggane" by Peter Tremayne has some good folklore from the Isle of Man and some fairly harrowing ghosts seeking revenge.

"The Uninvited" by John Glasby is really a glorified EC Comics tale of a murderess being chased through her house by the reanimated corpses of her victims. A. J. Merak's "A Present for Christmas" (actually, Merak is Glasby) is much better, telling about a nasty spirit seeking to give a backhanded present, and a man's futile efforts to prevent the worst from happening.

Simon MacCulloch's "The Deliverer" has supernatural horrors as a country parson turns to darker practices. Roger Johnson's "The Night Before Christmas" is another tried-and-true genre, the repeated dream that is a sign of a terrifying fate, but again, it's a good example of that genre. And it was specially written for the collection.

Another exclusive tale, "On Wings of Song" by David G. Rowlands, tells of an amateur production of "Dracula" that leads to what appears to be attacks by an actual vampire. And ending the collection is a wonderful short chiller, "The Santa," by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, that explores the darker side of St. Nick.

Aside from a few clinkers, this was a superior collection, well-suited for fireside reading as cold winds blew outside. Get a copy and put it on your shelf for the next holiday season, folks. It's well worth it.