Monday, January 31, 2011

Where to write your letters to support the Poe House

If you want to send a letter protesting the funding cut to the Poe House, here's the address to use.

Office of the Mayor, City of Baltimore
100 North Holliday Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

I beg my readers to please, please, please be polite, to express an understanding that times are hard, but also express your feeling that a landmark like the Poe House needs to be preserved as part of the cultural heritage of the city of Baltimore, if not the country as a whole. Tell them that without the Poe House, there's less reason for you to visit Baltimore and spend your money there.

No threats, just be measured, polite, yet disappointed and maybe a bit angry.

By the way, the Mayor's name is Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, so please don't embarrass yourself with "Mr. Mayor." If you're going to name her on the envelope, please refer to her as "The Honorable Stephanie Rawlings-Blake." Open your letter with "Dear Mayor Rawlings-Blake," and in the body you have three options; "Mayor Rawlings-Blake," "Madam Mayor," or "Your Honor." A dignified, respectful tone will serve you much better than incoherent outrage. After all, my readers are people of class and distinction, so don't let me down.

Friday, January 28, 2011


I somehow found out about this author recently, and got the first in her series from interlibrary loan.

THE WEAVER AND THE FACTORY MAID is set in contemporary England. Hero Ringan Laine (folk musician and historic preservationist) receives a lovely cottage as payment for a restoration job, and upon moving in discover that the cottage, and a nearby barn (which Ringan hopes to convert to a studio) are haunted...and it turns out the specters are the subject of a ballad Ringan and his group have performed...

How is it? Well, Grabien's grasp of setting is great, and the ghostly scenes are ghostly enough, but left me cold. As a ghost story it's fairly average but as a mystery (which it's supposed to be) it's really flat. Much is spent on introducing the characters (which include his girlfriend Penny, who manages a theatrical troupe, and his benefactor, Albert) and describing the cottage and environment (near Glastonbury), and establishing the haunting, that there's not much real oomph. The characters don't succeed much in uncovering the ghosts' secret; in the end, the ghosts themselves tell the mortals who they are and how to put them to rest.

But for me, the biggest issue is that there's no plot in the mortal world to act as a counterpoint. Even a murder is revealed as solved the minute it's uncovered. Among my guilty pleasures are the gothic romantic suspense works of Barbara Michaels, and she always has some sort of human drama going along with the ghost story, whether it's solving a murder or other crime, or simply negotiating a rocky path to romance. That's something that's lacking here. Laying the ghosts is hardly essential; Grabien presents them as being more nuisances than actually menacing. It would have been more pressing if the ghosts had been possessing people, or if the real murderer remained to be discovered. There's no Big Secret to be uncovered here, no threat to the living to be dealt with.

However, it seems this did successfully kick off a series, and I'm sufficiently intrigued to be motivated to check out the others. Given some more fleshing-out of the stories, this could be a fun series. (There's five of them, and Grabien appears to have moved on as the last one came out in 2007.) So in the future I'll be checking them out...

Monday, January 24, 2011


After reviewing the book, I found my DVD copy of the 1931 version (from Alpha), and gave it a viewing.

In some ways, it's better than the novel. Karlov (now a scientist) is present from the beginning, as a good, jovial man who snaps when his daughter commits suicide after being seduced and abandoned by Gregor Petroff, who gives her a family heirloom, a necklace called "The Drums of Jeopardy" that has four drums instead of two, and now they're rubies rather than emeralds. Karlov goes after the Petroffs, but is exiled to Siberia as they close ranks and refuse to reveal which one of them was responsible (Karlov doesn't know it's Gregor).

After the revolution, the Petroffs flee Russia for Paris, and then New York, being stalked all the time by Karlov and his associates. And one of them, Prince Nicholas Petroff, stumbles into Kitty Conover's apartment...

Rather brief at just over an hour long, it's still good fun. Warner Oland, in his pre-Fu Manchu days, is impressive as Karlov. Kitty, who's no longer a reporter but seems to be independently wealthy, lives in a fabulous art deco penthouse rather than the rundown tenement of the novel. That's OK...the set is flippin' gorgeous. Instead of a wealthy godfather, she's got a crotchety aunt. The Petroffs have more dimension, and there's actually a sense of tragedy this time as Karlov is less a thug and more of a good person who's been severely wronged...and the Petroffs, at least some of them, deserve what Karlov dishes out. Especially the sniveling Gregor.

The cast also includes Mischa Auer (who did a lot of villain roles before segueing into comedy) and Clara Blandick (Auntie Em from THE WIZARD OF OZ), and June Collyer is effective as the headstrong Kitty. It's fast-moving with plenty of serial-style thrills, including speeded-up fights and an underground chamber flooding with water. Fairly good fun.

(And I've been busy this month! My muse is working overtime. Haven't really been trying to post more often, just have been feeling the urge.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Good and the Bad...Was This the LAST Poe Birthday Celebration?

So, today I drove up to Baltimore for the Sunday-afternoon performance of the 2011 Poe Birthday Celebration...

A few smaller things surprised me, such as the surprisingly smaller-than-usual attendance, and the lack of programs. (Dangit, I like the programs, they're mementos of the evening!) There was the usual clutch of souvenir vendors; I bought some coasters and a sticker from Raven Brewery. A lady was wandering about as the wife from "The Black Cat," holding a stuffed black cat and with an axe sticking out of her hairdo. Unlike many past years, which had beastly weather (I've driven down from Baltimore after these in ice storms and snow), it was bright and clear but ferociously cold, so little to keep people away. And I was amused by the fact that I got there practically on instinct alone, having been up so many times.

The program opened with a filmed tribute to Vincent Price, who's having his centennial this year. It was a bit of biographical info and then trailers and clips from his Poe movies with Roger Corman, put together by local actor Mark Redfield. This was followed by the Baltimore Men's Chorus, which performed "The Bells" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes" before launching into a new, original arrangement of "The Raven." Their performance was quite nice and a refreshing change from the usual. And I kept looking over the singers; quite a few looked like something I'd bump into at the Eagle or Green Lantern, and upon checking out their site...surprise, surprise, they're a gay group. Cool.

After the break was comedian Grover Silcox, who gave lighthearted commentary on Poe and teaching Poe to children, while also giving recitations of "The Bells," "Annabel Lee," "The Raven," and that one I dread so much, "The Tell-Tale Heart." OK, I understand about the last one; it was a revolutionary story in its time, for actually telling a story about an insane murderer from the murderer's point of view, but's such a favorite with performers of Poe that I now just roll my eyes. And Silcox was dead serious with his performances, which was a bit jarring at first, but he really threw himself into it, and sometimes was teetering on the brink of going completely over the top. Although I give him major points for pronouncing "homage" correctly, as "HOM-idj," rather than the hideous and pretentious faux-French "o-MAZH" affected by so many today.

Silcox is an energetic performer, with a bit of Nathan Lane about him, and seems genuinely passionate and fascinated with Poe, so he was a worthy addition to the show.

And then, the bombshell.

Jeff Jerome, the director of the Poe House Museum in Baltimore, gave a speech about how the city has cut off funding for the museum and has declared that it needs to be self-sustaining by June of 2012, which looks good on paper but so few museums are truly self-sustaining these days.

So there's bound to be a lot of fundraising going on, but the big shock was the announcement that this was probably the last Poe Birthday Celebration. I was reeling with shock; I had no idea there was an issue with funding.

So the evening ended with the usual toast, but this time to the people who have kept the museum and events running for so long, and a genuine hope that this will continue.

As people filed out, I found myself taking a few shots and just standing around, looking at the place, imprinting it on my memory, just in case I never saw the inside again. I had to run up the stairs to the old choir loft, to a window that's halfway up. Years ago, at another celebration, it had begun to snow during the show, and going up the stairs I had stopped and gazed out the window, struck by the sight of the snow falling on the graves below, at the beautifully peaceful scene that was simultaneously weird and gothic. So every year I have to go up those stairs and look out the window, and tonight was no exception.

I went out with some others to pay my respects at Poe's grave, bedecked with roses and pennies, despite the apparent retirement of the Poe Toaster as of last year. One gal gave the memorial an affectionate caress, and fondly said, "I'll be seeing you."

So I'll be joining the others in writing a stern letter to the mayor's office, and will definitely make time soon to return to Baltimore to visit the Poe House. But in the meantime, I'm a bit sad over this situation, and going over my options. When I learn more, I'll be posting a Call To Arms here, so stay tuned.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


This was a hot-selling thriller back in 1920, having been serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, and was the basis of a play (poorly received) and two movies (one in 1923, and a sound remake in 1931 that's regarded as a minor classic). I downloaded it from one of the free ebook sites, thinking it might be fun...

Oh lordy, was I wrong.

This book stinks. It's a sloppily written potboiler that has aged very badly. It's the tale of someone who goes by the name of "John Hawksley" who's on the run from some villain, and off to meet up with a former mentor...for some reason that's forgotten by the end of the book. John is actually the child of an Italian mother and Russian noble father, and carries with him the "Drums of Jeopardy," two huge emeralds in settings that make them out to be the heads of drums. The villain, named "Boris Karlov," (I kid you not) is a Bolshevik, a crony of "Trotzky," who's out to kill John because he's the last member of a family that Karlov hates, and also to grab the jewels. John falls in with reporter Kitty Conover, who has a fabulously wealthy godfather who's not only nursing a crush on her, but also just happens to collect green gemstones and drums!

OK, on the surface it looks like it could be good fun hokum. But even on that level it flails. The writing is often turgid and MacGrath pauses every so often to rant about Bolshevism, so much so that it's not only tiresome but gets in the way of the story. A whole chapter that's an argument between Karlov and a captive is just an occasion to rant about the evils of Bolsheviks and how everyone's greatest and purest goal is to own property. (Yeah, not finding one's true love, but own property. We later have a violinist basically giving himself up to death because his most prized possession, a Stradivarius [it's always a Stradivarius] is destroyed by a Bolshevik philistine.) One wonders of Ayn Rand read this. (Not that I'm a fan of Bolshevism; I'm not, but capitalism has its drawbacks as well.) MacGrath is also hostile to southern and eastern Europeans, equating them with Bolsheviks, with the notable exception of John, and at one point lashes out against a union organizer. Just about anything not western or northern European, or not specifically free-market capitalist, or vaguely "internationalist" in any way, is a target of scorn.

Another plot element that ends up going nowhere is how Kitty goes to her godfather's place, who's out, and she ends up sleeping on the couch. And later the godfather and John are worried that she's been "compromised" and how godfather must marry Kitty to save her reputation, then let her divorce him and get a generous settlement. It's absurd and pretty stupid because we're never given any indication that anyone knows that Kitty spent the night at her godfather's place, let alone that anyone is scandalized or even cares in the least. It's all pointless and serves only to pad the narrative, but likely only serves the purpose of illustrating the dying gasps of Victorian morality.

The worst part is that we're given bits and pieces of John's background, but never know his true name or have things laid out for us. I was hoping for some more of the romance of the jewels, but there's damned little there. Then again, I have to admit that when I got about halfway through I started to skim a lot, mainly because I got bored by the anti-Bolshevist ranting.

Watch the movie if you want, but avoid the book. It stinks.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

WHEN GODS DIE by C. S. Harris

C. S. Harris keeps delivering. I picked up the second book in her Sebastian St. Cyr series, fearing a sophomore slump, but she maintains the promise set by her first book and keeps going.

It's 1811, and during a soiree at the Prince Regent's Brighton Pavilion, the wife of an aging noble is found dead...and worse yet, in the Prince's arms. Who is responsible? Who took her body there, and for what purpose? It leads to a challenging puzzle, full of interpersonal intrigues and political machinations. And it's all capped off by a touching, tragic love story that I found unexpectedly moving.

Sebastian is developing as a person and as a detective, and he's given a quick left to the sensibilities when the dead woman is found wearing a necklace that has a personal meaning for him, and it seems to be kicking off a multi-volume story arc.

WHEN GODS DIE is great fun, well written and with a tense plot and good characters, and a wonderful grasp of the era in which it's set. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

APPARITIONS by Joseph Taylor

The exhaustive full title is "Apparitions; or, the Mystery of Ghosts, Hobgoblins, and Haunted Houses Developed, Being a Collection of Entertaining Stories Founded on Fact, and Selected for the Purpose of Eradicating Those Fears, Which the Ignorant, the Weak, and the Superstitious, are but Too Apt to Encourage, for Want of Properly Examining into the Causes of Such Absurd Impositions."

A mouthful, eh? Printed in 1815, this is a fun collection of weird stories, all with the goal of proving that ghosts and supernatural phenomena aren't real. Therefore, there's a load of stories of hauntings that turn out to be pranks, mistakes, dreams, sleepwalking, or even criminal activity. There's a haunted castle that's actually the headquarters of a gang of coiners, a walking corpse that's actually a murderer, a female ghost who's just a sleepwalker, a ghost that's only in a guilty man's mind, and a haunting that's the result of a lecherous priest seeking a young girl's virtue. Taylor scorns belief in the supernatural, and his goal was to make people look closer and actually investigate. He does seem to be accepting of religion and in one story seems to scorn ghosts while entertaining a slight belief in telepathy, but still, it's a remarkable example of skepticism from nearly two centuries ago.

One story sticks out for those who, like me, enjoy reading about urban legends. Entitled "Remarkable Instance of the Power of Imagination," it's the tale of a young buck who goes into a supposedly haunted abbey and vows to stick his knife in the floor to prove he was there. You guessed many stories have recounted, he accidentally sticks the knife through his coat, and in turning to leave, believes spectral hands are grabbing at him. Modern versions of the story have the person dying of fright, but Taylor's version has the man panicking and knocking himself out as he tries to escape. He's rescued the next morning and his mistake is revealed by his friends, but he determinedly believes that he was attacked by ghosts.

It's fun to see such an old origin to a popular tale told by kids today; these days it's often part of a fraternity or sorority initiation, and a version is told about a cemetery in Baltimore. A variation of the story was used in the 1962 film RING OF TERROR.

I read APPARITIONS on my brand-new Kindle, downloaded for free from Gutenberg. It's still readable after 200 years, although some of the poems haven't aged well. But I recommend it for skeptical types and for those who enjoy a glance into the psyches of folks from Way Back When.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Required Reading: BRYANT & MAY ON THE LOOSE by Christopher Fowler

Hallelujah! Bryant & May are back!

When last we saw them, the Peculiar Crimes Unit was in disarray, having been disbanded by the Powers That Be. But one of the team, trying to find a new job, stumbles on a headless body. Normally, that's nothing too spectacular, but it's in the middle of the King's Cross redevelopment project, and therefore a bit politically sensitive. Add to that appearances of a stag-headed man with metal antlers who spooks the Eastern European workmen and harasses clubgoing chicks, and the PCU is called back into action, operating out of rented digs (a suite of offices with a dark secret, it turns out) and delving into the mystery.

It's a welcome return to form, because the mystery here really delves into one of Fowler's great strengths: his passion for London's urban landscape and its history. It drips from the pages, with that slight aroma of city ditches that may turn off some but appeal to others. It ranges from modern office buildings to crumbling churches, and is rife with long-hidden secrets and forgotten passages that lead...somewhere?

A new twist is that Fowler adds a new element, a supremely nasty villain who's a worthy adversary for the PCU. Mr. Fox, as he's known, is smart, observant, and just insane enough to make him dangerous and unpredictable. In many ways, he's the dark reflection of Bryant & May. He's probably the nastiest villain the pair have faced and his observations on the situation make for excellent reading.

It's an amazing amount of fun, a good rip-roaring read and a welcome return to the PCU. And there's more on the way!

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Phantom Concert Hall...A Walk in the Park

It's late, the sun has set, and you're walking across the park as a shortcut. The shadows stretch out before you, forming bizarre shapes on the ground, sometimes seeming to swallow you up. Wait a minute...are those footsteps following you? You look over your shoulder...did someone just slip into a shadowy corner? You quicken your pace...

Your heart begins to thump, and you hear a voice...or did you?...did it call your name? Or was it your imagination? Why is the park so empty? Why do the lights not seem to illuminate much? The very air seems to absorb the luminescence, and objects very near the lampposts are wreathed in shadow.

Something flaps overhead, and you're still convinced you're being followed. For whatever reason, your normal instincts to find out what's going on are gone; you just want to get out of there. There's fear in the very air itself. You're breathing it in, quicker and quicker. You break into a run, and know full well that someone is behind you, running to keep up, but you don't dare look.

Finally, you reach the street, and stop as the traffic goes by. You look back in the park, and just barely catch a glimpse of someone (or something?) stepping behind a tree. Or maybe it's a trick of the shadows.

This little vignette was inspired by this piece, a work by American avant-garde composer Charles Ives.