Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cabaret Macabre!

I'm being a bit of an old poop this Halloween. I've been experiencing some foot pain (I probably need to replace my inserts), and getting around without a car has occasionally been a freakin' annoyance. (I should add that some of my friends have really come through for me, and for that and them, I am extremely grateful.) We had a dreadful cold snap today, with record lows, sleet and snow making dicey traveling, and a freeze expected in the small hours tonight. Also a bit of personal drama (not going into detail, except to say that someone's been crossed off the Christmas card list, at least for the time being) has left me in a sour mood. So rather than be a killjoy at parties, I've been going to the movies and the theater, and actually having a good time.

Tonight I hit Happenstance Theater's delightful "Cabaret Macabre," the second of what will hopefully be an annual event. There's no real plot here; it's a series of sketches, all influenced by sources as scattered as Edward Gorey, Tom Waits, true crimes, Tom Lehrer, Goethe, and others. There is a loose connection around the concept of a school for "Precocious Twins" but that's merely an excuse for some loosely-connected skits. As there always is, there's parts that aren't as funny as others (a repeated gag seems like a bad idea), and sometimes the audience was chuckling at stuff that was really meant to be serious (a dramatic reading of "The Erl-King", which I saw coming almost at once), but overall it was a grand experience. There's skits, readings, and musical interludes, including Schubert's "Du Bist Die Ruh" on cello, piano, and musical saw.

Mark Jaster, one of the two brains behind Happenstance, is an amazing performer, communicating volumes with a single gesture or small change of expression. Sabrina Mandell, the other brain, combines an appealing goofiness with sharp-as-a-tack expressions. The rest of the cast is quite good, and Matthew Pauli was memorable when he strutted onstage, shirtless, as "Shears the Groundskeeper." (Alas, it's only one brief bit. Yes, I'm being a toad.) Karen Hansen's original music livens up the proceedings. It's also one of those shows that makes you appreciate good lighting design.

It's all great fun, and rekindles my yearning for a full-time cabaret. One of my many recurring pipe-dreams (at least, one of those I can comfortably share on this blog) is having my own nightclub/cabaret...although I'm undecided if I'd call it "Le Cafe Fantomas" or "Das Kabarett Mabuse."

"Cabaret Macabre" plays at Round House Theatre's Silver Spring facility, right on Colesville Road next to the AFI Silver. It plays Thursday through Sunday till Nov. 13, with a show on Halloween night as well. Tickets are $15 and worth every penny. See it, folks, this is Dust & Corruption delirium.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Afternoon at the Movies: Heading North

And again, after lingering over lunch, swapping stories and conversation and showing off our latest finds at the thrift shops and used book stores, our group is walking through the doors of our favorite theater again.

The weather has been chilly, and there's already talk that it will be a bad winter, so why not get in the mood?

This is a kissing cousin to Melies' famous "Trip to the Moon" but may be better in a few ways. I love the Professor's airship and the competition between the varying methods of transport. An enjoyable relic.

Show's over; time to retreat to our favorite cafe for a drink before going our separate ways...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

THE POISONED PEN by Arthur B. Reeve

From 1912, this isn't a novel, but a collection of short stories published in assorted magazines. Still, it's a fun collection of early scientific-detective works, sometimes seeming rather steampunk-ish.

Reeve's detective Craig Kennedy repeats his usual pattern of being hired to look into some crime, then using what was then high-tech equipment to foil the evildoers.

The first story, "The Poisoned Pen," is a tale involving a seemingly accidental poisoning of a young actress in a New England artists' colony. In fact, when I first read it I thought maybe Reeve had based the story on the real-life death of silent film actress Olive Thomas, who died in Paris of an accidental poisoning, but Reeve's story prefigures the Thomas case by nine years. Yikes! It's solved through skilled chemical analysis.

In "The Yeggman," (an old word for a burglar; sounds almost comical these days, doesn't it?), Kennedy is hired by an insurance company to look into a case of stolen pearls, and a maid chloroformed to death. He analyzes how the safecrackers worked, using low-level explosives, and lays a trap with a high-speed camera while going undercover in a gang of housebreakers. It's all lurid silent-movie stuff, like something out of Feuillade.

"The Germ of Death" is interesting in its sympathies for Russian revolutionaries in the days before the Red Scare, which really took hold in 1919. Kennedy investigates suspicious deaths in a cell of Bolsheviks headquartered in New York, which turns out to be done by a Czarist spy using typhus germs in an early case of bioterrorism. There's also an early appearance of a bomb-transporting device. It's kind of funny seeing Russian revolutionaries being depicted as so noble and idealistic, and the czarists so evil, when in a few short years there would be all sorts of sympathy for the czarists and the Bolsheviks would be so reviled. America is so fickle.

"The Firebug" has Kennedy hired to look into a rash of arsons, but all are around a chain of department stores. He solves the case with handwriting analysis (the arsonist conveniently sends taunting notes to the fire chief), legwork, and a "telautograph," a long-distance writer that allows him to summon a warrant. "The Confidence King" brings in the Secret Service as Kennedy deals with a counterfeit ring; we get a rundown of Bertillon's "portrait parle," and describes a bizarre method of changing one's fingerprints that is so loopy it just HAS to be bullshit, as I've never heard of it being done anywhere else. (My attempts to Google it have yielded nothing, so it's either something Reeve made up or else something that has since been discredited and discarded.)

A telautograph.

In "The Sand-Hog" Kennedy investigates evil deeds committed during the construction of a tunnel (sandhog is a term used for workers in excavation projects). Much is made of how the workers are operating in a pressurized environment, but the case is solved with a "telegraphone" or early bugging device.

A telegraphone.
Up next is "The White Slave," something that folks in the early 20th century seemed to hold in horror, although it's still a problem today. It's just not nice girls kidnapped off the streets to be forced to work as hookers, but immigrants duped into going to another country and end up in forced sexual servitude. Anyway, this story is less about drugs and prostitution and more about Kennedy exposing a fake psychic, and explaining some of the techniques used by such frauds. In that respect, this story is a little dear to my heart...nothing warms me like exposing a fake psychic who exploits the unhappy to line their own pockets. Interestingly, the resolution is brought about by hair analysis.

"The Forger" has Kennedy up against a check-forgery scheme, which was seemingly easy to do back then. The case is resolved by judicious use of a "telectrograph," or early fax machine for sending photos. (It makes me want to dub the fax machine in my office the "telelectrograph," which would certainly bewilder most of my co-workers. My boss would probably join in, though.) "The Unofficial Spy" opens with a mysterious death in a hotel, segues into Kennedy explaining the so-called "endormeurs" of Paris (criminals who drug their victims then rob them, at least according to Reeve), and ends up with Kennedy improvising a bug and stumbling on a plot for freelance spies to sell vital documents. It actually goes to Washington DC, to "the house on Z Street" which doesn't exist. Reeve probably knew that.

"The Smuggler" has Kennedy brought in to foil an attempt to smuggle designer gowns and jewelry to high-fashion shops of New York, reminding me of Patricia Moyes' 60s novel Murder a la Mode that deal with industrial espionage in the fashion world. It's solved with the assistance of a photophone.

A photophone.
Up next is "The Invisible Ray," in which an ailing millionaire is seeking his long-lost daughter, who may be a fraud. He suddenly goes blind and it appears to be connected to a crackpot alchemist who may be in cahoots with the "daughter." The man dies but Kennedy brings him back to life with a Draeger Pulmotor (yeah, you read that right, the man is brought back to life...this one pushes suspension of disbelief a little too far), and Kennedy reveals the man was blinded by ultra-violet rays (!), and the culprits arrested.

A Draeger pulmotor
Finally, "The Campaign Grafter" has a potentially honest politician being besmirched by a seemingly incriminating photograph, something that would be laughable today. The bad guys are brought down by some sneaky photography and a bit of bugging.

Is it good? Not always; sometimes it's just too formulaic and clunky for its own good. But at the same time, it's kind of fun to read these stories that tackle criminal problems with "revolutionary" devices that are so quaintly interesting to us today. Sometimes the attitudes are eye-opening, like in its treatment of Bolsheviks. And from a steampunk perspective, it's a lot of fun. I almost want to experiment with some of these. But they're also fun from the perspective of putting yourself in a silent-movie frame of mind, which is how I read them. So if you're fond of that period, read away!

CONTAGIOUS by Scott Sigler

Again, this isn't my usual thing, but it's so good I had to review it. Contagious is Sigler's sequel to Infected, a book I reviewed earlier, and continues the saga of Scary Perry Dawsey, former footballer turned avenging angel who's teaming up with the government scientists and doctors who are investigating the mysterious disease that's turning people into raving maniacs...and forcing them to participate in the construction of mysterious gates that communicate with another planet.

Where Infected dealt mostly with Dawsey's breakdown, this book steps back a bit and lets us see a bigger picture. We see the military leaders coping with the gates and the creatures trying to come through. We have a President, newly elected, making tough decisions about how to handle the infection. And we have Dawsey, getting himself back together and attempting to find some meaning in life after the events of the last book.

One thing that was pretty cool was how, in the first book, Dawsey was dominated by memories of his abusive father and seemed to take strength from that. However, this time around we get a better picture of how screwed-up Dawsey is as a result of his childhood...and how he actually finds real strength and a bit of peace as he forges an unexpected bond.

We also see more from the bad guys' perspective. There's a satellite orbiting Earth that's a source of the contagion, and we get a glimpse of its purpose and backstory. And there's a child who's infected with a new strain, who becomes a control and nexus for the invaders. She's a great villain, an angelic child who's all selfishness and impulse, only this time having the power and authority to have her every whim catered to.

So there's more psychology of Dawsey here, and also some pretty pointed satire on religion, as under the girl's guidance the infected begin to view things as a crusade, and she progresses from viewing herself as God's messenger to a new God entirely. (I mean, c'mon, give a kid that sort of power, they'd go completely berserk...)

It's quite good stuff, although Sigler admits he had a bitch of a time writing this. (I listened to the audio podcast version, and he does a Q&A in the last episode that's very illuminating.) He's getting the wheels turning on a third novel, Pandemic, and I'm looking forward to that. In the meantime, I'm trying to figure out what to listen to next; Ancestor, Earthcore, or Nocturnal? I've been listening to his "Bloodcast" short audio fiction podcast, which is very fun. He also has a series centered on the "Galactic Football League" that I haven't sampled yet, and I have to admit that it's because I'm not much on football.

But buy 'em, borrow 'em from the library, download 'em to your MP3 player. Sigler's a cool dude and deserves support.

And here's a video promotion for the book...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Something Else for the Calendar

This totally slipped my mind, and I'd originally meant to include it, so here goes...

10/28-11/13 - "The 2nd Annual, All-New, Cabaret Macabre," by Happenstance Theater. I saw "Cabaret Macabre" last year and had a blast, and I've come to love this quirky group for their cabaretesque performance pieces. This is definitely worth checking out. Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD. (Right next to the AFI Silver Theater, part of the same building but a different entrance.) Check their website for showtimes.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Dust & Corruption Calendar: October 2011

It's gonna be a busy month! Here's some stuff going on locally and elsewhere that caught my eye...

10/6 - "Born of the Floating World: A Brief Exploration of the Japanese Graphic Narrative," illustrated talk by Dev Avidon, examines the roots of manga and anime in the art of 17th and 18th century Japan. The Observatory, 534 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. Tix $5, starts at 8:00.

10/7 - Edgar Allan Poe House Benefit Concert, featuring Lenorable, Dance for the Dying, Nunchuks, and Lions & Tigers & Whales. Velvet Lounge, 915 U St NW, Washington DC. Doors at 9:00, admission $8.

10/11-14 -  Soiree Debauche tours the mid-Atlantic, a burlesque show featuring Maria Bella, Mab Just Mab, Little Luna, Malibu, Nona Narcisse, August Hoerr, and Mark Slomski. 11th - Gallery 5 in Richmond, VA. 12th - The Red Palace, Washington DC. 13th - The Ottobar, Baltimore, MD. 14th - The Rex, Pittsburgh, PA.

10/13 - "The Empire of Death: Spectacular Ossuaries and Relics in the 16th and 17th Centuries," lecture and book signing by Dr. Paul Koudounaris, explores the uses of human remains in decorating religious shrines. The Observatory, 534 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. Tix $5, starts at 8:00.

10/14 - Seismic Sideshow, an array of sideshow & burlesque performers, a benefit for the annual Sideshow Gathering. Two shows, 9:00 and 11:30. The Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC. Tix $10 in advance, $15 on the day of the show.

10/15 - Halloween Costume Tea. For your younguns, a chance to dress up, have a colonial-era tea, and make some Halloween treats. Tudor Place House & Gardens, 1644 31st St NW, Washington, DC. Tix $20-$25. 1:00pm to 3:00pm.

10/15 - "Love Potion #1", an adaptation of the opera "L'Elisir d'Amore" by Donizetti, produced by my pals at the ever-interesting and innovative IN Series. Shows 10/15, 16, 22, 23, 28, 29, at GALA Hispanic Theater, 3333 14th St NW, Washington, DC. Tix $40, check site for showtimes. I'm ushering on the 23rd, so say hi if you come.

10/15-11/2 - Noir City DC 2011, a film noir festival featuring such classics as MILDRED PIERCE, THE MALTESE FALCON, LAURA, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, SUDDEN FEAR, and many others. AFI Silver Theater, 8633 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD. View the full schedule at the website, where tickets can be purchased.

10/15-31 - Halloween on Screen, AFI's yearly schedule of horror films for the season, this year including a special tribute for Vincent Price's centennial. Films include TOMB OF LIGEIA, PIT AND THE PENDULUM, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, THE TINGLER, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, and others. AFI Silver Theater, 8633 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD. View the full schedule at the website, where tickets can be purchased.

10/16 - Skepticamp DC, a day-long grassroots conference on skepticism. I'll be presenting a paper on dentistry, tackling the marketing claims of over-the-counter dental products, and the intersection of dentistry and internal medicine. 10am to 6pm, Prince Georges Room, Stamp Student Union, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Registration is free, lunch is provided.

10/16 - Feral Femmes, burlesque & belly dance fundraiser for the ASPCA and feral cat rescue. Solly's Tavern, 1942 11th St NW, Washington DC. Tix $10, Doors 7:00, show 8:30.

10/20 - Capitol Tassels & Tease! View DC's budding burlesque beauties. The Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC. Doors at 8:00, showtime at 9:00, tix $10.  

10/20 - "From the Magnificent to the Macabre: Send-Offs for the Dead," illustrated talk and book signing by Sarah Murray, looks at over-the-top funerals. The Observatory, 534 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. Tix $5, starts at 8:00.

10/22 - The 4th Annual Silver Spring Zombie Walk. Dress up like a zombie, or a zombie hunter, and join in the lurch. Gather at Jackie's or the Sidebar, lurch up Georgia Avenue (starting about 8:45), scare the folks on Ellsworth, then relax at the AFI Silver for a showing of DEAD SNOW.

10/22 - THE HANDS OF ORLAC, with live music. The 1924 silent horror classic gets a live soundtrack. ArtSpace Herndon, 750 Center St, Herndon, VA. Tickets are $5. (I'd love to do this, but lacking transport at the moment, it seems unlikely.)

10/22 - Halloween and Day of the Dead Party, with music, costumes, sugar skulls, burlesque, videos, and more. The Observatory, 534 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. Tix $12, starts at 8:00.

10/24 - "Freaks and Pornography: Victorian Popular Anatomy Museums, Sex, and the Unusual Body," illustrated talk by Saran Kathryn York, looks at Victorian museums which purported to show unusual examples of human anatomy but also trafficked in pornography. The Observatory, 534 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. Tix $5, starts at 8:00.

10/27 - Tudor Place History Haunt, an evening event for grown-ups, with a ghost-themed walk in the gardens followed by cocktails and refreshments. Tudor Place House & Gardens, 1644 31st St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets $10-$15, starts at 6:00pm.

10/27 - "Attack of the Mutant Theremin: A Scholarly Halloween Diatribe....with Music." Talk & performance by thereminist Kip Rosser; title pretty much speaks for itself. The Observatory, 534 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. Tix $5, starts at 8:00.

10/28 - Two silent classics with live music by the Alloy Orchestra! At 7:00, it's a restored 35mm print of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with Lon Chaney; at 9:30 it's NOSFERATU. AFI Silver Theater, 8633 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD. Tix $20/$18 members. (It's two separate shows, not a double feature, alas.)

10/29 - The 4th Annual All Sinners' Night. Music and burlesque and costumes. The Windup Space, 12 West North Ave, Baltimore, MD. Doors at 8:00, tix $10.

10/31 - Halloween! Go wild, go crazy, just be sure to come back and tell the tale!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Quick Personal Note

Sorry I've been dragging lately. The last few weeks have been a bit difficult, just not horribly. I fought off a sinus infection, had a quick exam by my cardiologist (no biggie, just lose some weight and get some exercise), started taking tango lessons (yes, for realz), and then took my car to the garage to diagnose a rattle and was told it needs about $900 in repairs. Ugh. So right now my car's sitting immobile in the parking lot while I build up the scratch to get it fixed. It's annoying but there's public transport galore here, and I once went six months without a car with only a few problems here and there, so a few more won't be too much of an issue. I'll definitely have it back on the road by the New Year.

In the meantime, I've been reading and listening to music and doing other things. Last night I walked into the movie MYSTERIES OF LISBON, not realizing it was nearly 5 hours long, and while it's not exactly an action-packed mystery, it is a visually impressive and lavish film that truly captures the feel and spirit of a 19th-century novel. I highly recommend it.

A small example of MYSTERIES' visual oomph.
And just throwing something out the past month, the top 10 countries looking at this blog were the US, UK, Indonesia, India, Canada, Germany, Russia, Italy, France, and Poland. "Strawberry Hill," "Xeethra," and "Anthony Eglin" are the top 3 search terms that lead people here. And the top post is my review of The Castle of Otranto, which is the most popular of all time. I guess a lot of students are doing papers on it.

I also read this in the meantime. It's OK, not great. The narrator spends far too much time navel-gazing and getting caught up in her too-perfect-for-us-to-care love affair. I will give it credit for having a nifty murder method (poisoned blankets and sheets) so it wasn't a total loss. But the language was fairly clunky and I just couldn't like the narrative. These "literary thrillers" are starting to get too big for their britches.

Anyway, that's all for now. I'll try to keep it moving this month; October is big for our little community...

The Phantom Serenade: A Dashing Escapade

For several weeks the city has been held in the grip of terror. Every three days a diabolical crime is committed, either a spectacular robbery or a bizarre and grotesque murder, seemingly at random although a member of our group thinks there might, just might, be some sort of pattern.

We've followed a series of clues to an abandoned warehouse, and one of us has located a trapdoor leading to a network of tunnels. And then, we turn a corner....there is the fiend himself, in a black cape and hood, and a bizarre mask, playing a huge pipe organ and laughing madly!

We lunge at the malfactor, but with a final cackle he ducks through a secret panel that locks behind him. Damn! Will we ever catch him?