Sunday, August 26, 2012

Housekeeping Notes

I've added a couple things off to the side.

First is the tumblr of someone whom I hope to have contribute here at some point. Go check out Mr. Timothy Gray, for delightful oddball images of gothicism and stage magic.

And I discovered a new podcast, A Podcast to the Curious, that focuses on M. R. James, and followed the Lovecraft Literary Podcast model in that they read a story by their author, then discuss and dissect it. I've listened to one episode but I'm sold. Check 'em out.

I'm also seriously thinking of putting out a call for contributors...if anyone's interested in being a regular writer/reviewer/whatever, drop a comment or an email. Please. I'm not getting any younger...

More from the Pulps: THE SPIDER STRIKES!

Thank goodness for the Kindle store on Amazon; it's making a lot of classic pulp titles available. In addition to Doc Savage and the Shadow, I'm also diving into The Spider.

The Spider, aka Richard Wentworth, first appeared in September of 1933, and was the seventh character to get his own magazine. (Aside from Doc Savage and the Shadow, there were folks like The Phantom Detective, G-8 and his Battle Aces, Secret Agent X, The Avenger, Captain Future, The Black Bat, and probably a few others I've missed; the old hero pulps are seen as the forerunners of modern comic books, with the influences on them very, very obvious.) He's from the same publisher that did The Shadow and there's quite a few similarities between the two characters on the surface, although there are significant differences.

In The Spider Strikes, the first novel in the series, Richard Wentworth is a wealthy playboy already known as an amateur detective and crime-fighter. He's returning from Europe after attempting to track down a mysterious criminal known as Mr. X, a genius of disguise who seems able to infiltrate anywhere he pleases and gets away with bizarre crimes. He's a vicious criminal who has some sort of nebulous plan and Wentworth is trying to track him down.

"The Spider" is Wentworth's alter ego; actually, The Spider is wanted for murder, and he's basically a George Kaplan-esque character (watch North by Northwest if you don't get that reference)  who gets blamed for any deaths that Wentworth causes. He's got few scruples about killing, but makes sure the people he kills are guilty.

The story also introduces the reader to Wentworth's faithful servant Ram Singh (who's shamefully stereotyped but also a tough, strong character) and Wentworth's girlfriend, Nita Van Sloan (who is one tough cookie). These characters would regularly appear in the series and sometimes would even take over "The Spider" identity.

The plot meanders here and there in New York, and eventually leads, interestingly, to a ship loaded with chemicals, and it turns out there's a double plot. Mr. X wants to use poison gas at sea to loot a ship on its way to the US with a foreign debt payment (similar to one of Leslie Charteris' "Saint" stories, "The National Debt"), and also gas Wall Street and loot it.

And that's one of the interesting things about the series; it's seldom just gangster and thieves and racketeers. Spider villains think big; they're after huge coups and will do grandiose things to get them. (I've read a few Spider novels in the past.) Although The Spider doesn't really have a costumed identity in this novel, that does develop later, and the series will also become notorious for the lurid titles that sound like something from the weird menace pulp tradition, stuff like Emperor of Pain and Death Reign of the Vampire King and The Devil's Death Dwarves.

Is this worth reading? Definitely, for fans of the pulps. The Spider is definitely one of those pulp characters who almost defines the genre in its over-the-top battiness and sheer energy. Truly fun.

THE BURNING COURT by John Dickson Carr

One of Carr's more famous works, The Burning Court uses the notorious Marie de Brinvilliers case as a springboard for a modern murder.

It's 1929. Publisher Edward Stevens is on his way from New York to his weekend cottage in the Philadelphia suburbs, eager to join his wife Marie. He's got the manuscript of a book on poisonings by true-crime author Gaudan Cross to go over, and he's struck by a chapter on a Marie D'Aubray, who had committed some poisonings in Canada in the 1800s, and he's struck by the resemblance between the portrait of Marie D'Aubray in the book and his own wife...whose maiden name happens to be D'Aubray.

Things get even weirder when he gets to the house. Marie is behaving oddly, and Stevens is visited by his neighbors. Miles Despard, the patriarch of a local family, died recently but his family now suspects it was poison, and are seeking to prove it. Will Stevens help them break into the Despard crypt so they can retrieve the body?

There are all sorts of weirdness going on in this tale. Miles last drank out of a silver cup, and a cat that sampled it died. A servant claims to have seen a woman in old-fashioned dress in Miles' room, and leaving by a door that no longer exists. Marie went missing from a costume party that same night; could she be involved? And Miles' body is missing from the crypt; why?

Sound fun? Well...I'm sorry to say that it's not. The Burning Court's reputation seems to lie more on its ideas than its actual execution. It's a horrendously SLOW novel; the only real action takes place during the break-in of the crypt and the final scene at the end. Other than that, it's mostly people sitting around talking and discussing things that happened off-stage or in the past. Conversations go on for several chapters.

It does go for the Gothick atmosphere but sometimes seems a little silly. Carr really goes for the Despards as Lords of the Manor, but that all seems tone-deaf when you remember the story is set in Pennsylvania. There really is a tone of the Ye Olde English Country House about all this. There's also some intriguing set-up with characters who are descendents of those involved in the original de Brinvilliers case, or having the same name, all showing up; could this be spectral revenge? Talk of deceased criminals coming back as "the non-dead" rather than simply undead is amusing as well.

But the talkiness and sluggishness of it all is deadly, and the last-second appearance of Gaudan Cross in the last quarter of the book to act as deus ex machina and explain everything is fatal. He's utterly uninvolved with the story up until then, but shows up to a rational , earthly solution to the case.

I will give it credit for having a coda that shows that while the murder was earthly, there really WERE supernatural forces at work in the story, with horrors to come for some characters...but it hardly saves the rest of the book.

Would I recommend it? Not really. There's just too much turgidness here to make it exciting for the modern reader. Carr was an inconsistent author, and while he sometimes had great ideas, his execution could be dreadful.

This is the last Carr I'll be reading for a while...onward and upward!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

THE BRAVO OF VENICE by Matthew Gregory Lewis

OK, it's not exactly completely by Matthew Gregory Lewis, but it's got an interesting history...

This novel actually began life as a German work, Abällino der große Bandit, published in 1794 by Heinrich Daniel Zschokke; in 1804 it was adapted into English by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Zschokke was known mostly for this one novel, but it was a seminal work in what was known in Germany as the räuberroman, which also took off in England. It translates as "robber novel" and is basically a subgenre about either hideous evil bandits who get what's coming to them or about noble misunderstood heroes going undercover as dashing highwaymen, perhaps similar to Georgette Heyer's charming debut novel The Black Moth.

So, what's it about? Well, an ugly, twisted chap named Aballino shows up in Venice, gets involved in a few swordfights, and then joins a gang of robbers and bandits. He's supposed to assassinate Rosabella, the beautiful ward of the Doge, as an initiation but instead kills the bandit chief to protect her. And, naturally, he declares his love for the typically innocent Rosabella.

Of course, all is not as it seems. There's also a handsome dandy named Flodardo who's moving in the top social circles of Venice...and actually, he and Aballino are the same man, actually Count Rosalvo! He ends up in the middle of political machinations to assassinate the Doge, and Flordardo is called on to capture Aballino!

If this all sounds very loony, it is, but it's also quite a bit of fun. It's interesting for being a VERY early use of the secret identity trope. It's a great early gothic and example of the bandit-oriented subgenre. And, honestly, it reads fairly well if maybe a bit clunky in spots (I found the beginning quite slow, but it picked up quickly). I kept imagining this as a 60s historic swashbuckler from Italy, perhaps with Gordon Scott as Rosalvo/Aballino/Flodardo and Mimmo Palmera as one of the conspirators.

There are print editions of this here and there, but why bother? Digital editions are available for free from various websites, including Amazon. Check it out if you want some swashbuckling fun. I think swashbuckling is overdue for a comeback, don't you?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Night at the Movies!

It's a fairly cool Sunday evening as we head down the street to our favorite old movie theater; now that the sunsets come sooner some of summer's heat has been blunted and occasionally there's a day like today that's surprisingly cool.

Today it's a double feature of works by Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon, both short. Starting with the longer, we have "Legend of a Ghost" from 1908, which is rather incoherent, a series of surreal vignettes with no real story connecting them, but it's still pretty to look at.

And then there's a shorter piece, actually only a fragment of a longer one, called "The Enchanted Pond" from 1907, that seems in sync with summertime langour.

It's raining when we leave the theater, on our way to stop at the cafe, and we duck under umbrellas, talking and laughing, before going our separate ways...

Saturday, August 11, 2012

THE DEVIL IN VELVET by John Dickson Carr

This is one of the best Carr works I've ever read. It merges his historical mystery milieu with actual supernatural content, in a fairly satisfying way.

In 1925, historian Nicholas Fenton literally makes a deal with the devil to go back in time to 1675, and inhabit the body of another Nicholas Fenton, who was involved in a murder case. Records are incomplete, and Fenton wants to know who did it and why. His friend Mary is appalled; she's a younger lady, daughter of a friend, but there's an admiration there. Satan himself shows up, cunningly described as banal and cold, with an air of nothingness around him.

When Fenton does go back, he is the older historian's mind and soul in the body of a younger man...but the younger man takes over in times of great passion or anger. Carr deals well with the time-travel elements, of how modern sensibilities are not prepared for the smells and sensations of a different era. And he also tackles the subject of Fenton's personality shifts nicely. Fenton quickly falls in love with the murder victim: Lydia, the first Fenton's wife. He identifies that she's being slowly poisoned and divines how it's done...but something seems wrong. Meanwhile, another time-traveler shows up; it's Mary, having gone back for love of him. Fenton, schooled in fencing, soon becomes a fearsome opponent in a time when swordfighting was hack-and-slash. Carr introduces Charles II, again making a case for him as a cunning master manipulator rather than the shallow "merry monarch" that he's normally known as. (Carr also explored this in the excellent Most Secret.) Fenton is soon caught in a morass, torn between two women, hip-deep in political plotting, and simply trying to survive when Old Nick shows up again, and Fenton must find a way out of the contract. Meanwhile, murder is done, and Fenton must seek the answer to save his own life.

It's a rip-roaring read, and with some genuine surprises. The final solution to the mystery was a real shock for me, but it made absolute sense. I loved the introduction of another time-traveler, something you rarely get in time-travel stories. The supernatural elements are well handled; Satan is given both charm and repellence, and there's hints of the Other Power making Its presence known in the character's lives as well.

The Devil in Velvet was published in 1951 and is disgracefully out of print (other Carr works are available here and there, even in Kindle versions). But for it's combination of mystery, history, and supernatural terrors, this is a must and well worth seeking in your local used book emporium. Good luck!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dust & Corruption Calendar for August 2012

OK, I'm a little late, but you were warned. August is here, with the blazing heat being tempered somewhat by earlier sunsets and longer nights. Those of us in school are staring down the barrel of classes, while working stiffs like me are slaving away, snatching glances at the outside when we can. But here's some fun things to keep you busy if you're not afraid of leaving your air-conditioned home....

8/8 - Summer Lovin. DC's Twisted Knickers troupe gives a summertime show with their usual flair. Featuring Beaujolais Nouveau, Tapitha Kix, Petra Precocious, and Milan sensation Miss Satine, and hosted by my dear friend Hot Todd Lincoln. Doors 8:30pm, $10. The Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC.

8/9 - Pinchbottom Pretencion! The Pinchbottom Burlesque crew perform at Coney Island, with Angie Pontani, Trixie Little & the Evil Hate Monkey, Jo Boobs, Dirty Martini, Johnny Porkpie, Tigger, and others. 9:00pm, Tix $12 and available here. 1208 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY.

8/10 - Surrealesque: An Erotic Cabaret Odyssey. Two-city tour, tonight hitting Baltimore's Ottobar. Baltimore's own Gilded Lily troupe is joined by Deanna Danger and singer Sabrina Chap. Doors 8pm, $15. The Ottobar, 2549 N Howard St, Baltimore, MD.

8/10 - Grab My Junk! Johnny Porkpie's burlesque game show comes to DC. Doors 8pm and 10pm, $10. The Red Palace, Washington, DC.

8/11 - Surrealesque: An Erotic Cabaret Odyssey. Tonight in Pittsburgh's The Rex. Doors at 8pm, $15. The Rex, 1602 E Carson St, Pittsburgh, PA.

8/11 - Peek-A-Boo Revue! Philadelphia's own award-winning burlesque troupe performs with Austin's own Coco Lectric. 9pm, ticket cost unknown. The Trocadero, 1003 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA.

8/11 - The SweetBread Jim's "Potluck" Spectacular! (Please don't bring food.) Free food, wine, and beer, live music by Star FK Radium and SweetBread Jim's, and burlesque, comedy, sideshow, and magic. 7pm, tix currently $25 (available here). St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, 1525 Newton St NW, Washington, DC.

8/12 - And the Word Was: TEASE. Interesting-sounding combination of burlesque, spoken word performances, and burlesque done to spoken word. With Gabriela Maze, Cwen L'Queer, Patsi Cake, Femme 6, and Baltimore spoken word star Petula Caesar. Doors 8pm, $10. Crazy Russian, 8209 Pulaski Hwy, Rt 40 E, Baltimore, MD.

8/15 - DCVariety Open Mic Night! Expect an assortment of performance oddities, hosted by my pal Mab Just Mab. Doors 8:30pm, $8. The Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC.

8/16 - Strip Club Time Machine by Sticky Buns Burlesque. My pals at Sticky Buns present their latest scripted, structured burlesque show (a rarity!). With Sticky Buns regulars Paco Fish, Marla Meringue, Shortstaxx, Nicolette LeFaye, and Sunny Sighed, being joined by Knoxville's own Salome Cabaret! 9pm, $15 advance, $20 at the door. The Ottobar, Baltimore.

8/17 - Bury-Q at the Venue: One Year Anniversary Show. A sampling of Virginia talent, hosted by my long-distance friend Ellie Quinn. 9pm, $15, reservations essential. The Venue on 35th, 631 35th St, Norfolk, VA.

8/17 - Taxidermy, Longing, and Beastly Allure. Illustrated lecture and book signing by Rachel Poliquin, author of The Breathless Zoo and Ravishing Beasts, on the history and fascination of taxidermy.8pm, $5. The Observatory, 543 Union St, Brooklyn, NY.

8/18 - Strip Club Time Machine! Sticky Buns and Salome Cabaret reprise their show in DC. 9:30pm, $10 advance, $15 at the door. The Red Palace, Washington, DC.

8/18 - The Fall of the American Movie Palace. Illustrated lecture by photographer Matt Lambros, on the decline of lavish American movie theaters. 7:30pm, $10, advance tix available here. The Observatory, Brooklyn, NY.

8/22 - Monster Movie Double Feature! Not actually movies, but burlesque and (I think) magic with a classic monster-movie theme. With Black Tassel Boo-lesque's Mourna Handful and Eyrie Twilight, and also with Starlet Scarlet, Sally the Cinch, and Buster Britches. 8:30pm, $10. The Red Palace, Washington DC. This sounds like a must, folks.

8/23 - Unhappy Hour - Hop-Frog! Check out a new exhibit based on the Poe story, along with live music, a dramatic reading, free munchies and a cash bar. 6pm to 9pm, free but donations of $5 encouraged. The Poe Museum, 1914-16 E Main St, Richmond, VA.

8/30 - Martian Space Oddities. Illustrated lecture by author Andrew Kessler about the exploration of Mars, robotics, and places on our own Earth that mimic the Martian surface. 7:30pm, $12, advance tix available here. The Observatory, Brooklyn, NY.

8/31 - My birthday. I'll be 47. OLD., that's actually a lot. Hope anyone in these cities is reading and can give a report....

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

At the Beach: A Phantom Serenade

To beat the heat, we've gone down to the seaside to enjoy the breezes, but there may be a storm coming, and who's that woman walking nearby on the strand? Winds kick up and our blood runs cold...

I discovered this song on the "Irish & Celtic Music Podcast" a while ago, and it struck a nerve for me. It's something I love listening to when I'm traveling near the water.

Sorry I've been quiet; life has been BUSY for me, and I'm going away for a few days. Once I'm back next week, I'll be able to get things moving again. I've got some books to review, photos from various adventures to share, and musings to ponder over. So stay tuned; Dust & Corruption will never truly go away...