Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some thoughts from Charles Lamb

I love this 1823 essay by Charles Lamb, so I'm showing it in its entirety. He sums up how New Year's Eve is inescapable. Happy New Year, everyone. Have a safe and happy evening and may the best of the old be the worst of the new!

EVERY man hath two birth-days; two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration. The one is that which in an especial manner he termeth his. In the gradual desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnizing our proper birth-day hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who reflect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand any thing in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.

Of all sounds of all bell -- (bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven) -- most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelvemonth; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies. It takes a personal colour; nor was it a poetical flight in a contemporary, when he exclaimed

I saw the skirts of the departing Year.
It is no more than what in sober sadness every one of us seems to he conscious of, in that awful leave-taking. I am sure I felt it, and all felt it with me, last night; though some of my companions. affected rather to manifest an exhilaration at the birth of the coming year, than any very tender regrets for the decease of its predecessor. But I am none of those who -

Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.

I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties: new books, new faces, new years, -- from some mental twist which makes it difficult. in me to face the prospective. I have almost ceased to hope; and am sanguine only in the prospects of other (former) years. I plunge into foregone visions and conclusions. I encounter pell-mell with past disappointments. I am armour-proof against old discouragements. I forgive, or overcome in fancy, old adversaries. I play over again for love, as the gamesters phrase it, games, for which I once paid so dear. I would scarce now have any of those untoward accidents and events of my life reversed. I would no more alter them than the incidents of some well-contrived novel. Methinks, it is better that I should have pined away seven of my goldenest years, when I was thrall to the fair hair, and fairer eyes, of Alice W--n , than that so passionate a love-adventure should be lost. It was better that our family should have missed that legacy, which old Dorrell cheated us of, than that I should have at this moment two thousand pounds in banco, and be without the idea of that specious old rogue.

In a degree beneath manhood, it is my infirmity to look back upon those early days. Do I advance a paradox, when I say, that, skipping over the intervention of forty years, a man may have leave to love himself, without the imputation of self-love?

If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective -- and mine is painfully so -- can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious * * * addicted to * * * * : averse from counsel, neither taking it, nor offering it: -- * * * besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not: I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door -- -- -- but for the child Elia -- that "other me," there, in the back-ground -- I must take leave to cherish the remembrance of that young master -- with as little reference, I protest, to this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments. I can lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ's, and wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood. -- God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated. -- I know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was -- how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself, -- and not some dissembling guardian, presenting a false identity, to give the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my moral being!

That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy. Or is it owing to another cause; simply, that being without wife or family, I have not learned to project myself enough out of myself: and having no offspring of my own to daily with, I turn back upon memory, and adopt my own early idea, as my heir and favourite If these speculations seem fantastical to thee, reader -- (a busy man, perchance), if I tread out of the way of thy sympathy, and am singularly-conceited only, I retire, impenetrable to ridicule, under the phantom cloud of Elia.

The elders, with whom I was brought up, were of a character not likely to let slip the sacred observance of any old institution; and the ringing out of the Old Year was kept by them with circumstances of peculiar ceremony. -- In those days the sound of those midnight chimes, though it seemed to raise hilarity in all around me, never failed to bring a train of pensive imagery into my fancy. Yet I then scarce conceived what it meant, or thought of it as a reckoning that concerned me. Not childhood alone, but the young man till thirty, never feels practically that he is mortal. He knows it indeed, and, if need were, he could preach a homily on the fragility of life; but he brings it not home to himself, any more than in a hot June we can appropriate to our imagination the freezing days of December. But now, shall I confess a truth ? -- I feel these audits but too powerfully. I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and shortest periods, like miser's farthings. In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away "like a weaver's shuttle." Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity: and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave. -- Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.

Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself -- these things go out with life?

Can a ghost laugh, or shake his gaunt sides, when you are pleasant with him?

And you, my midnight darlings, my Folios! must I part with the intense delight of having you (huge armfuls) in my embraces? Must knowledge come to me, if it come at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by this familiar process of reading?

Shall I enjoy friendships there, wanting the smiling indications which point me to them here, -- the recognisable face -- the "sweet assurance of a look" -- ?

In winter this intolerable disinclination to dying -- to give it its mildest name -- does more especially haunt and beset me. In a genial August noon, beneath a sweltering sky, death is almost problematic. At those times do such poor snakes as myself enjoy an immortality. Then we expand and burgeon. Then are we as strong again, as valiant again, as wise again, and a great deal taller. The blast that nips and shrinks me, puts me in thoughts of death. All things allied to the insubstantial, wait upon that master feeling; cold, numbness, dreams, perplexity; moonlight itself, with its shadowy and spectral appearances, -- that cold ghost of the sun, or Phoebus' sickly sister, like that innutritious one denounced in the Canticles : -- I am none of her minions -- I hold with the Persian.

Whatsoever thwarts, or puts me out of my way, brings death into my mind. All partial evils, like humours, run into that capital plague-sore. -- I have heard some profess an indifference to life. Such hail the end of their existence as a port of refuge; and speak of the grave as of some soft arms, in which they may slumber as on a pillow. Some have wooed death -- -- -- but out upon thee, I say, thou foul, ugly phantom! I detest, abhor, execrate, and (with Friar John) give thee to six-score thousand devils, as in no instance to be excused or tolerated, but shunned as a universal viper; to be branded, proscribed, and spoken evil of! In no way can I be brought to digest thee, thou thin, melancholy Privation, or more frightful and confounding Positive!

Those antidotes, prescribed against the fear of thee, are altogether frigid and insulting, like thyself. For what satisfaction hath a man, that he shall "lie down with kings and emperors in death," who in his life-time never greatly coveted the society of such bed-fellows ? -- or, forsooth, that "so shall the fairest face appear? " -- why, to comfort me, must Alice W--n be a goblin? More than all, I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that "such as he now is, I must shortly he." Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the mean-time I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Years' Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821. Another cup of wine -- and while that turn-coat bell, that just now mournfully chanted the obsequies of 1820 departed, with changed notes lustily rings in a successor, let us attune to its peal the song made on a like occasion, by hearty, cheerful Mr. Cotton. -

Hark, the cock crows, and yon bright star
Tells us, the day himself's not far;
And see where, breaking from the night,
He gilds the western hills with light.
With him old Janus doth appear,
Peeping into the future year,
With such a look as seems to say,
The prospect is not good that way.
Thus do we rise ill sights to see,
And `gainst ourselves to prophesy;
When the prophetic fear of things
A more tormenting mischief brings,
More full of soul-tormenting gall,
Than direst mischiefs can befall.
But stay ! but stay! methinks my sight,
Better inform'd by clearer light
Discerns sereneness in that brow,
That all contracted seem'd but now.
His revers'd face may show distaste,
And frown upon the ills are past;
But that which this way looks is clear,
And smiles upon the New-born Year.
He looks too from a place so high,
The Year lies open to his eye;
And all the moments open are
To the exact discoverer.
Yet more and more he smiles upon
The happy revolution.
Why should we then suspect or fear
The influences of a year,
So smiles upon us the first morn,
And speaks us good so soon as born?
Plague on't! the last was ill enough,
This cannot but make better proof;
Or, at the worst, as we brush'd through
The last, why so we may this too;
And then the next in reason shou'd
Be superexcellently good:
For the worst ills (we daily see)
Have no more perpetuity,
Than the best fortunes that do fall;
Which also bring us wherewithal
Longer their being to support,
Than those do of the other sort:
And who has one good year in three,
And yet repines at destiny, [p 32]
Appears ungrateful in the case,
And merits not the good he has.
Then let us welcome the New Guest
With lusty brimmers of the best;
Mirth always should Good Fortune meet,
And renders e'en Disaster sweet:
And though the Princess turn her back,
Let us but line ourselves with sack,
We better shall by far hold out,
Till the next Year she face about.
How say you, reader -- do not these verses smack of the rough magnanimity of the old English vein? Do they not fortify like a cordial; enlarging the heart, and productive of sweet blood, and generous spirits, in the concoction? Where be those puling fears of death, just now expressed or affected ? --passed like a cloud -- absorbed in the purging sunlight of clear poetry -- clean washed away by a wave of genuine Helicon, your only Spa for these hypochondries -- And now another cup of the generous! and a merry New Year, and many of them, to you all, my masters!

FIRE, BURN by John Dickson Carr

In the first half of the 20th century, Carr was It. He was a bestselling author. He teamed with Adrian Conan Doyle to write The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most notable early post-Doyle pastiches. And he was a popular writer for radio; he wrote a number of episodes for shows like Suspense! and one of his original shows, "Cabin B-13", ended up being spun off into its own series. His works were also the basis of an early TV show, Colonel March of Scotland Yard, with Boris Karloff in the title role. He also wrote a handful of well-received plays. He had a couple of popular series characters, like Dr. Gideon Fell (who was based on G. K. Chesterton) and Sir Henry Merrivale (modeled on Winston Churchill). He also was a pioneer of the full-length historical mystery novel. Carr was noted as the master of the locked-room murder although later critics noted that his plots often strained plausibility and credulity.

I've read some Carr in the past, and he can be a mixed bag. Some works, like the historical novel The Demoniacs, hold up well today, while one of his early works, Castle Skull, I found to be a crashing bore. He could generate all sorts of Gothick atmosphere, but I feel that all too often he used the promise of supernatural terrors to sell a mundane story. (Such was the case of The Demoniacs, which was certainly good enough but utterly lacking in the macabre.) And that's probably part of why Carr has fallen out of favor today. He was great in the 30s and 40s, but after WWII some felt he lost something (although some of his better works came from that period). By the 60s his style of mannered mysteries had fallen out of favor, and while some are still regarded as classics, others have not aged well at all.

Luckily, Fire, Burn is of the former category. It's a meld of mystery with touches of supernatural or sci-fi, as Scotland Yard officer John Cheviot stepped into a cab in 1957 and stepped out in 1829, stunned and bewildered. We're never told how or why he traveled back in time, or even if it's really happening or some sort of hallucination. It just happens.

Everyone recognizes Cheviot, even his lady-love, so he plays along, feigning a sudden illness sometimes to cover up his lapses in knowledge. Luckily, he's an amateur historian so he understands the Regency and its mores, which gives him an occasional advantage.

He ends up investigating some historical crimes using future knowledge and techniques. It starts off with a noblewoman complaining of stolen birdseed, but then leads into a full-throttle murder investigation when a woman is shot to death in front of a group of people, but no one had a gun nor can one be found that actually fired the bullet.

In between there's romance, ruminations on the period, duels, confrontations, and all sorts of fun. And then a surprising return to the present at the end.

One thing that struck me while reading this was how reminiscent this was of the TV show Life on Mars. The time periods are different, of course; LoM featured a detective from the 2000s projected backwards into the 1970s. I wonder if that show's creators were familiar with this novel.

Anyway, it's a fun, zesty read, like Georgette Heyer with testosterone. It should be easy to pick up at your favorite used book emporium. It is out of print but still protected by copyright.

Judge Dee: Lost in the Maze

Sorry, folks, I was away for the holidays and didn't have much time for blogging. Now I'm back and getting a few things up before 2012 starts breathing down our collective back...

The Chinese Maze Murders was the first Dee book written, but not first in sequence; it's actually mid-way through the series. It opens with the supernatural framing story found in the early novels; in this case, a man who researches old cases has a chance encounter with an old man (the ghost of Dee?) who tells him a lurid story over many pots of wine in a restaurant...but then the next day nobody remembers seeing him.

Dee and his lieutenants are introduced as being on their way to a new post in fictitious district of Lan-Fang, a remote section of the border harried by Uighur tribes. It's said that this is due to his angering two powerful factions, the Buddhist clique and the Cantonese merchants, while at his last posting. (This is recounted in The Chinese Bell Murders.) Things are definitely amiss when he arrives, and he discovers that a local tyrant has set himself up as the power in charge, and has bribed and browbeaten the old magistrate into submission. Dee quickly puts things to rights, although the situation comes into play later in the novel.

Dee is confronted by three mysteries. First off is the death of a retired general, found murdered in his locked study, a bizarre miniature dagger steeped in poison embedded in his throat. And a packet of candied plums is in his sleeve, laced with poison. Who wanted him dead? Was the same person responsible for both?

Secondly, the young widow of another retired official comes to Dee with a problem; her husband left her with nothing but a scroll painting that supposedly was a clue to her real inheritance. However, his adult son by his first marriage maintains that she was disinherited because of infidelity. Does the secret lie in the complicated garden maze of the official's crumbling estate?

Last, what became of beautiful innocent White Orchid? She vanished some time ago and may have been part of the tyrant's harem, but there's no sign of her in his house. Someone who might have been her was seen in an old temple garden...but then later a headless corpse shows up that's identified as her. What happened?

This book has a rawness that clearly indicates it as an early work, but it's still good. Van Gulik's gothic descriptions of the crumbling garden maze are vivid and memorable. He creates a number of good supporting characters, like the feisty Dark Orchid, and the Taoist hermit Master Crane Robe who gives valuable clues while barely seeming to know what's going on. And Mah Joong has a fling with Tulbee, a Uighur girl who shows up later in the series.

As usual, any of Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels are Required Reading.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Night Double Feature

We're taking a break from the holiday rush, and after a filling dinner at our favorite place (and leaving an extra-generous tip for the waiter), we head to that lovely old theater down the street for another double feature.

First off is an 1897 gem from George Melies, The Bewitched Inn...

Then up is a longer bit of fun, also from Melies: the 1904 An Impossible Voyage, which is rather steampunk-ish in its outlandish modes of transport.

You'll notice a bit of a travel and lodging theme here. Many of us are traveling this season, so I hope everyone has a good journey and doesn't face the perils you see here.

The show's over, we head off to our favorite cafe for a drink or two....

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Requiem: Susan Gordon, 1949-2011

The daughter of B-movie director Bert I. Gordon, Susan was an accomplished child actress, appearing in films like her father's ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, THE BOY AND THE PIRATES, and TORMENTED, as well as other films like THE FIVE PENNIES and THE MAN IN THE NET. She also did much TV work, including episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, ROUTE 66, GUNSMOKE, and MY THREE SONS. She retired from acting and became a successful businesswoman, married and raised a happy family, but also had a lot of fun visiting conventions and meeting her fans. Sadly, she had cancer and passed away on December 11th.

I had the pleasure of hanging out with her several times at Monster Bash conventions in Pittsburgh. We had a mutual friend, the late Richard Valley, publisher of Scarlet Street, and it was through him that we met. We were part of a big group hanging out in the hotel lounge and having fun, and I remember that with joy.

The second year I went, I saw her enter the hotel and talk to a few people. Then she spotted me, gave a huge smile, and hurried over to say hello and how happy she was to see me. I was bowled over. I'm a bit neurotic and tend to worry that people only put up with me rather than actually like me, and a friendly gesture like that made me feel ten feet tall.

Susan was like that. She was quiet and private, but also had a great sense of humor and was a nice, considerate, gentle person. I have to admit that I've only seen a few of her films (but I do think she was good) and don't feel right really calling myself a fan of her work...but I was certainly a fan of her as a person. I never thought of her as some inaccessible screen personality, but just as a warm, friendly woman who had some good stories to share, loved a good laugh, and had a kind, warm smile. She was a truly classy lady and I will always remember her with great affection.

And here's the trailer for my favorite of her movies, TORMENTED:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's My Own Invention: Have a Gentleman Adventurer!

I received a good-sized bottle of brandy as a birthday present, and have experimented on and off with it. But then, one night I was doing a free-form cocktail, and I hit upon a happy combination.

Pour a finger or two of brandy into an old-fashioned glass (preferably a vintage cut-glass one). Add a splash or two of Gran Gala, a brandy-based orange liqueur. Pop in a couple of ice cubes, and sip contentedly by candlelight.

I asked my cocktail-nerd friend Sasha if he knew if that was an actual drink...while there is a drink called a "Lead Balloon" that's brandy and Grand Marnier, mine has Gran Gala and uses different (and more casual) proportions. So I took the liberty of claiming ownership and giving it a name: the "Gentleman Adventurer"! (And I am taking his advice and writing it up everywhere I can...or as he put it, "Blog that shit, yo.")

It makes for a good nightcap, or for relaxed sipping while watching a favorite movie, or as a congratulatory drink after you've solved the murder or prevented the fiendish villain from raising the dead and/or taking over the world. It's a very smooth, civilized drink, easy to mix on the fly. Mix it at home, explain it to your local bartender, spread the word! Have a Gentleman Adventurer!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dust & Corruption Calendar: December 2011

December is busy for all of us, I think, but here's a few things if you need to slip away from the family...

12/2-11 – Arlen Blues & Berlin Ballads, a musical cabaret from my pals at the IN Series. At theAtlas Performing Arts Center.

12/7 – Capitol Tassels & Tease Winter Wonderland Show.The Red Palace, 9:00pm.

12/8 – 3rd Annual Great Turducken Feast, featuring Montreal’s Blood Ballet Cabaret on their first US tour. The RedPalace, 8:30pm.

12/10-11 – Russian Winter Festival, Hillwood Estate. 10-7 on Saturday, 1-5 on Sunday.

12/10 – Dangerous Curves Ahead: Burlesque on the Go-Go, featuring Anita Cookie, Clams Casino, Gigi LaFemme, Minnie Tonka, and Darlinda Just Darlinda. The Red Palace, 9pm and 11pm.

12/10 – Grand Guignol Spectacular, featuring performances, film, toy theater, song, dance, and more, with a DJ’ed after party. The ConeyIsland Museum, 1208 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY. 8:00.

12/11 – D20 Burlesque, nerdy group on their first East Coast tour. The Red Palace, 8:30pm.

12/15 – Pretty Things Peep Show. The Red Palace, 9:00pm.

12/16 – The New York Grind Show, Birthday Baby Edition, featuring Amber Ray, Clams Casino, Anita Cookie, and Legs Malone. The RedPalace, 9 & 11.

12/16 – Sticky Buns Burlesque, featuring the Sticky Buns troupe with special guests Spencer Horsman and Miss Joule. Illusions, 1025-27 S Charles St, Baltimore, MD, 8:30pm.

12/17-18 – 2nd Annual Morbid Anatomy Holiday Fair, at The Observatory.

12/21 – The winter solstice. Also my parents' anniversary.

12/24 – Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, free screening at the National Gallery of Art. 4:00

12/25 – Christmas. Survive! Enjoy it if you can, take a nap, don't eat too much, maybe make time for a movie or just to sit quietly and read.

12/30 – Accidental Circus Holiday ExtravaganzApocalypse. With Paolo Garbanzo, Mab Just Mab, the Mezmer Society, Sidetracked, and Darbuka Dave, with more to come.  Gallery 5, 200 W Marshall St, Richmond, VA. 8:00pm.

12/31 – Two free French fantasy films at the NationalGallery: Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orphee at 2:00, and Jacques Demy’s 1970 Donkey Skin at 4:00.

12/31 – Ball Drop Burlesque & Variety Blowout Bash. New Year’s Eve party at the Red Palace. With Dr. Lucky, Lil’ Steph, Miss Joule, Paco Fish & Marla Meringue, Mab Just Mab, DJ Momotaro, and hosted by Scotty the Blue Bunny. Shows at 9, 10, and 11; advance tickets (highly recommended) are $30.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Phantom Serenade: The Chase in the Catacombs

We've been tracking the fiend from October, and a trail of clues has led us to the catacombs under the city. Every so often we think we've found him, but then he eludes our grasp....or it's not him at all. We've encountered a rat-catcher, and a mysterious man who calls himself Armand and who limps horribly. The trail has led us through what was once a speakeasy and at another point we stumble on what seems to be a Satanic chapel...and recently used.

And then, from hidden speakers, comes this tune from Mussorgsky...

Wait! Was that him? Good grief, what is he carrying?