Monday, May 31, 2010

A MASTER OF MYSTERIES by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

I'm a skeptic. Yes, that's right, while I enjoy reading horror stories and supernatural tales and "true" ghost stories and all that, I'm a big-time skeptic. While part of me would love for ghosts and psychic powers and suchlike to be real, I know that the evidence just isn't there, at least to satisfy me. And that's why I love this book so much.

Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, aka L. T. Meade, (1854-1914) was a prolific author of children's novels that are largely forgotten today, but also wrote a number of mystery stories that are still read a century later. With Dr. Clifford Halifax, she co-wrote "Stories in the Diary of a Doctor", and with frequent collaborator Robert Eustace, she co-wrote a number of episodic novels/short story collections, including THE SORCERESS OF THE STRAND and THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE SEVEN KINGS (both of which I'll be reviewing in the future) and this collection, first published in 1898.

The titular "Master of Mysteries" is John Bell, a professional investigator of supernatural mysteries. He's not a believer; he's firmly convinced that such phenomena are hoaxes and the work of mortal evildoers, and of course, he's always right. He deals with the upper class, at least in the stories presented here (and I guess they're the only stories he's in). He's a distant precursor to the Scooby-Doo gang. He's also frank about the thankless nature of his job, and how he's exposed to ridicule, because society thinks nothing of the superstitious but looks down its nose at those who try to prove superstition false. (Still fairly true today, even in the age of shows like MYTHBUSTERS.)

"The Mystery of the Circular Chamber" has Bell investigating a supposedly haunted room in a remote rural inn. "The Warder of the Door" is an ancestral curse that Bell must break. A series of mysterious deaths is the center of "The Mystery of the Felwyn Tunnel." A ghost that steals diamonds, and a seemingly invisible boat, are featured in "The Eight-Mile Lock." "How Siva Spoke" tackles a seemingly talking idol, and "To Prove an Alibi" is a return to haunted-room territory, with echoes of Wilkie Collins.

Bell is very much a typical detective; he examines the scene, questions the witnesses, uses disguises, and applies his knowledge and education. While he's capable of being scared, he doesn't let himself be carried away by fear. He's a great stalwart character, full of Victorian assurance and rectitude, but not so full of himself as to be a prig or an oaf. Still, he's not horribly interesting (we find out little of his inner life) and he could have used some fleshing out.

Still, that aside, this is a fun collection. Meade was a very straightforward writer, never too flowery, and remains readable. (I strongly suspect Eustace was there to provide medical and scientific input; he later collaborated with Dorothy Sayers for her non-Wimsey novel, THE DOCUMENTS IN THE CASE.)

There's reprints of this out there, but why bother? It can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg, illustrations and all.

SHADOWS BEND by David Barbour and Richard Raleigh

This is a book I had for quite a while, and I'd heard quite a bit of hype about it. It's a fictionalized teaming of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, battling Cthulhoid menaces, and while it's interesting in some ways, it fails at being either exciting or horrific.

It opens with Lovecraft arriving in Cross Plains, TX, to see Howard, and many of his early scenes are done as fish-out-of-water comedy. Lovecraft, the stuffy New Englander with British affectations, doesn't fit into rural Texas of 1935! He's in a panic, and has to see Howard. Turns out H.P. has been given a kachina doll with possibly evil powers, and the two need to head to California to meet up with Clark Ashton Smith (who has a possible copy of the real "Necronomicon") for them to consult.

On the way, they latch on to an Ivy-League educated prostitute, Glory, and they're pursued on the way by amorphous beings who are unacquainted with the English language and seek to destroy.

It's got an interesting concept, to be sure, and the characterizations are well-done. We get both men's good and bad points, their learning and artistry along with their prejudices and neuroses. The most appealing character in the book is Clark Ashton Smith, presented as a very centered and sane person, at peace with himself and his life. But sometimes it doesn't ring true, especially at one point where Howard refers to his "girl," Novalyne Price, who I think by this time had broken up with him and was involved with someone else. (I'll have to watch THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD again...) There's also a reference to Howard creating "Red Sonja," who really was a product of 70s comic books with a name taken from a minor character in a Howard historical story. But outside the Big Three, the characterizations are fairly flat. Glory never really comes to life, and seems more of a plot device than anything else. An aged Native American shaman is almost offensively cliched.

And the interactions between the two lead characters are what made it readable to me, because the actual plot is so lumbering and meandering that there's little real menace and excitement to it. There's some secret in the kachina that Lovecraft and Howard have to take to some location in the Southwest to prevent the Old Ones from coming back. That's pretty much it. There's a halfway clever angle of Lovecraft being perturbed about how what he had considered his fictional creations turn out to be real and telepathically transmitted to him in dreams, but more could be done with it. And all peters out in the end, rather anticlimactically.

There's too many inaccuracies about the real-life characters, and too much dullness in the plot, to make this worthwhile. A sad misfire, because I can tell they really wanted to do something special.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Video Shelf: DIVA

OK, long ago I promised my next Video Shelf post would be about Fritz Lang. Well, yeah, I've dragged my feet about that, but then news came out that a complete cut of METROPOLIS had been found and would be made available, so what the heck, I'm going to delay that and instead do one of my favorite films of all time, Jean-Jacques Beineix's DIVA.

DIVA, which came out in '81, was significant for me because it was my first exposure to foreign film (aside from Godzilla and Hercules films seen on Saturday afternoons). I was in high school, and it played on Maryland Public TV, dubbed, but still a thrill. It was an introduction to an entirely new worldview, and fueled the dreams of the kind of life I wanted to live.

DIVA, based on a novel by "Delacorta" (really Daniel Odier), has two converging plots. One is about opera diva Cynthia Hawkins (real-life opera singer Wilhelmina Wiggins-Fernandez) who refuses to make recordings. One night, she gives a grand performance at a concert, and is secretly taped by a lovestruck fan, Jules (Frederic Andrei), a postman. He manages to meet her in her dressing room, and unnoticed, impulsively steals her gown. Meanwhile, a prostitute, Nadia, is running away from a pair of hired killers, and slips a cassette tape into Jules' mailbag, a tape that names police detective Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) as the real head of Paris' vice rings. The gangsters manage to figure out Jules has the tape, and meanwhile, Taiwanese record pirates, who saw that Jules was taping the concert, are after him for the recording. Jules has a chance meeting with sexy young shoplifter Alba (Thuy An Luu), and then meets her middle-aged boyfriend, con artist Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), who become his guardian angels.

What follows is a madcap adventure full of cross and doublecross and triplecross, and one of the most exciting chase scenes ever filmed.

But the action isn't the only feature. It's also a very picturesque and romantic film. It's a vision of Paris that in the early 80s was very edgy, but today is sweetly nostalgic: of artists and bohemians living in industrial lofts and cramped apartments, everyone free to have their own obsessions and eccentricities, free to find their own cool, and as one critic said, "everyone cool with everyone else's cool." There's disreputable streets and sleazy clubs, but also gorgeous concert halls, opera houses, and one very memorable scene, Cynthia and Jules (by now with a budding romance) taking a predawn walk through Paris' monuments...

As a lonely, alienated teenager, a young gay man not yet at terms with it, let alone out of the closet, going to a rough-and-tumble high school in a western Maryland farming community, DIVA was a symbol of how I wanted to live, and my head was often full of images of running away to Paris, or New York, or some other great city to live a life of eccentricity and adventure.

I sacrificed some of that after college, working at a corporate job for several years after college, but I did manage to move to Washington, and while life hasn't quite turned out the way I hoped, I realize that in many ways, I am the cool eccentric bohemian I'd hoped to become, although I don't have a nifty loft (of course, those have all been snapped up by the yuppies and are outside the grasp of the impecunious sorts like myself) or the dashing adventures I'd hoped for (there's still time, I'm not too old yet!). I did manage a French-class trip to Paris in high school, and I still dream of going back. Paris has always been a sort of spiritual home for me, and let's be honest, the alternate universe that Dust & Corruption inhabits is very much like early 20th-century Paris. (With frequent excursions to London and Monte Carlo....)

DIVA has flash and style to spare; when it first came out, it was criticized for being TOO stylish, but age has been kind to it and it compares favorably to all-flash-no-substance films that come out today. Its edginess has been blunted by time, however, and now it's sweetly nostalgic.

But still, a film that celebrates passion and art, where love triumphs and evil is defeated, and that successfully balances plot AND artistry, is something for D&C fans to watch and cherish. Rent it, buy it, gather your friends together and pop some champagne corks. This is required viewing.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

May's Musical Interlude

This is a clip from the film DIVA (1981), one of my all-time favorites. This actually gets some of the plot going...the singer is a world-famous diva (played by real-life opera star Wilhelmina Wiggins-Fernandez) who refuses to make recordings...except that one of her biggest fans, Jules (Frederic Andrei), secretly records what is probably her greatest concert, and is seen doing so by Asian record pirates. Of course, there's more going on in the film, and I'm going to blog about it later, but in the meantime, enjoy the aria.