Thursday, January 31, 2013

THE HOUND OF DEATH by Agatha Christie

"Oh jeez, is he going to start reviewing Christie? Is this turning into another Poirot-worship blog?" I hear you screaming.

Well, I like Poirot, but there's enough about him on the 'net to let other people pick up the slack. I'm not wild for Miss Marple. However, there's some less-known Christie that I'll tackle from time to time.

The Hound of Death is very atypical Christie. It's a short story collection, and while some of it is the usual Christie mystery plotting, mostly it's a departure as it deals with ghosts and psychic phenomena. This is Christie taking a stab at horror writing!

The title story is a very interesting tale of a man's encounter with a traumatized nun from Belgium, a refugee from WWI under the care of a psychologist. The nun has strange memories and appears to have psychic powers. She is telepathic and has visions of a remote "city of circles" which far too many critics maintain is supposed to be a city in the far future, but is very, very, very obviously supposed to be Atlantis. The psychologist wants to tap her hidden power, an ability to call down immense destruction, which she apparently used on a German battalion that attacked her convent; the battalion was destroyed, but so was the convent, leaving her the only survivor...and the wreckage is in the odd shape of a hound...

"The Hound of Death" is odd, somewhat unsatisfying, but at the same time very bloody intriguing.

"The Red Signal" is a tale of twisted emotions and semipsychic warnings. "The Fourth Man" tells of possession...or is it madness? Is a young girl the victim of multiple personalities, or has she been possessed? "The Gipsy" is a very standard tale of love denied and true lovers being united in death.

"The Lamp" is also a rather standard ghost story, but with an added element of a person's deliberate self-sacrifice to bring aid to a lost soul. "Wireless" is a nasty twist tale of a murder plot that ends up going hideously awry, and I found rather reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell. "The Witness for the Prosecution" is obviously the basis of the famous play and movie, and little needs to be said about it other than the ending is a bit different. "The Mystery of the Blue Jar" starts off as a rather eerie ghost story...but ends up something else entirely. "The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael" is more supernatural hijinx with hints of witchcraft, as a man suddenly seems to develop the personality of a cat.

"The Call of Wings" isn't mystery or supernatural, just a tale of spiritual awakening and self-sacrifice. "The Last Seance" is a harrowing tale of spiritualism, in which a desperate women confronts a medium...whose powers may be real, and may be someone's undoing. The final story, "SOS," is a cute little mystery with overtones of the eerie but all rather mundane at the core.

How is it overall? As with any anthology, it has ups and downs. Some stories left me cold, like "SOS" and "The Call of Wings." Nobody can argue that "The Witness for the Prosecution" is a classic; it is. "The Hound of Death" is an intriguing tale with elements I may incorporate into a role-playing game, perhaps. (Yes, I said it.) And I truly loved "The Mystery of the Blue Jar" and "The Last Seance."

Christie was a great technician when it came to plots, but she wasn't always a great stylist. (Exception: The Hollow. Look for it.) She wasn't always great at creating atmosphere, at least in her earlier work. Sometimes in her later years she was good at it. (The stories were written mostly in the '20s, and the collection published in 1933. I found a reference claiming that "The Call of Wings" was one of the first things Christie ever wrote.)

It's actually a little difficult to get this in a physical edition; most of the stories here were republished in other anthologies, but a straight reprint with the stories in original order is hard to find. But it is available electronically; I got the ebook edition from Amazon and it's probably not horribly long until it's in public domain as some of Christie's early work already is.

Worth reading for Christie fans; general fans of supernatural and gothicism might be interested.

Monday, January 21, 2013

THE JUDAS PAIR, by Jonathan Gash

I read this long, long ago, and had to hunt it down again to revisit it. I'm glad I did.

The Judas Pair is the kickoff to Gash's series about Lovejoy, a roguish antiques dealer who's sort of the Harry Flashman of the vintage-goods set. He's sometimes involved in shady deals, almost always has multiple affairs going on, often with married women, is always broke, and has an odd semi-psychic ability to identify real antiques; in the book's slang, he's a "divvy."

As it kicks off, Lovejoy is asked to locate the "Judas Pair," a set of dueling pistols that are regarded as a myth. However, the client insists they're real...and responsible for the death of his brother, who had bragged of finding them, and then was found shot in the eye, dead, the pistols missing.

Gash (pseud. of John Grant, a doctor) peppers his book with tons of legit info about antiques and how to identify them...although annoyingly this is mostly on British antiques and may not apply to those of us in the States where stuff like this doesn't always migrate. (Still, there's always Ebay...) The fictitious pistols were made by a real-life gunsmith Durs Egg, and Gash gives us a portrait of the whole culture of dueling pistols and how they function and feel in the hand. But we also have Lovejoy in all his flawed glory; he's scrabbling around, experiences grief and terror, gets pissed off, even suffers a nervous breakdown in the course of the story. But he's very intuitive and figures out the secret of the pistols at the right time.

I followed the Lovejoy series for a while, then got away from it, but I may go back. I remember some books had wonderful, exquisite plots, like The Vatican Rip or The Sleepers of Erin, but others were almost plotless and meandering, like Moonspender. One novel, Jade Woman, was a bit lacking in plot, but its depiction of Hong Kong was mesmerizing and worth the purchase price alone.

And, heck, I'm into antiques. It runs in the family; my mother used to collect salt dips but now goes for vintage textbooks. My father's vast collection of flatirons, ranging from Colonial-era pieces to the early days of electric irons, is notorious in their area and their basement is a museum of vintage laundry processing. Even my brother-in-law was bitten by the bug and now deals antiques on Ebay; I had a great time with him over the holidays looking over his recent acquisitions, like some china cats and an advertising case for dyes, with many original dye packets intact. In addition to my growing collection of antiquarian books, I've got a small collection of cigarette cases (I had a thing for those in high school), and in my mature years have developed an eye for porcelain, glassware, and prints. So Lovejoy's right up my alley.

A note: Lovejoy was the basis of a TV show that ran for a while in the UK and showed here on A&E for a while. I was never crazy about it, and some folks I knew disliked it as well. Don't judge the books by the TV show; they're much better.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

First Cinema Night of 2013!

It's 2013! We gather happily for our monthly night at the movies, joking about our resolutions and maybe some sincere hopes for the year ahead.

After dinner, we stroll up the street to that weathered old movie house so full of character and history....

First up is a fun little bon-bon from 1906, Segundo de Chomon's "Bob's Electric Theatre."

And then the feature presentation, a 1932 chiller, The Monster Walks.

Yeah, I admit it, the opening minutes are the best part. Still, it's an interesting relic of the time when apes and gorillas were still very mysterious and romantic, and a standard part of horror cinema.

As we leave the theater, the air has grown cold and we hastily make our way to the cafe up the street for our final libation...

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Bit of Spring Heeled Jack

I'm still recovering from this bug, but much better now, thank you. So I thought I'd put up something quick.

I came across a cool link to a site about Spring Heeled Jack the other day; go check it out. One of the people I follow on Twitter posted it.

By the way, I'm @Vagrarian on Twitter, if you're on there. Come follow me if you want. I'm most entertaining.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Dust & Corruption Calendar for January 2013

It's a new year and all that. The first few days of the New Year were a tiny bit rough, as I'd spent the Eve at the Red Palace's farewell gala. Let's just say that there were a few tears shed. And then a few days ago I got hammered by some sort of virus or perhaps a bad sinus infection; I've been slouching around, blowing my nose and coughing, popping meds to cope with the pain from my throat and ears. If this keeps up much longer I'm calling the doc; these things often resolve themselves but the pain is keeping me from sleeping.

So I've dragged myself from my bed of pain to share some stuff that may be of interest...

Every month, Brooklyn's Observatory Room has an impressive array of lectures and workshops; check out their schedule here.

1/11 - The Gaslight Gala. A celebration of Arthur Conan Doyle's birthday, with drinks, buffet, skits, raffle, and an auction. 6:30 to 11:00. Tix are $78; info here. The Manhattan Club, 201 W 52nd St, New York, NY.

1/18 - Swami YoMahmi Presents: The Doctor Who Burlesque Adventure! It may sound weird, but the last Who-oriented burly-q show was a sellout, capacity crowd, so this is a must-have ticket. Two shows, 9:00 and 11:30; tix are $10 advance, $12 at the door, if any. The Black Cat, 1811 14th St NW, Washington, DC.

1/19 - Tilted Torch: Vaudeball. Vaudevill's inaugural ball! Celebrate the second inauguration with sideshow and burlesque, with one of the East Coast's most dazzling troupes. 8:00, tix $15 advance (available here), $20 at the door. 9th & Beats,  1219 9th St NW, Washington, DC.

1/19 - Ladies Night: An All Boylesque Revue! From Richmond's own burly-q troupe Those Freaking Weirdos comes an all-male cast of bumpers & grinders, with Dante the Inferno, Brian Boylesquo, Johnny Ram, Buster Britches, Chris Chaos, Jebediah Stone, and Paco Fish. 9:00, tix $12 advance, available here. Richmond Center Stage, 600 E Grace St, Richmond, VA.

1/19 - The 204th Poe Birthday Bash! I'm very, very likely to miss this, so anyone in the area who's going should get in touch and take some pictures at least. Meet author Kelly Creagh before the show, then watch Poe Masquers perform "The Masque of the Red Death." Then actor Tony Tsendeas takes the stage for his "Poe Show." The traditional toast, and a screening of the pilot of the upcoming TV series The Following, which has Poe elements.7:00, tix $25 in advance, $35 at the door, available here. Westminster Hall, 510 W Fayette St, Baltimore, MD.

1/25 - New York Variety All-Stars. Sideshow and zaniness from NYC-based artistes Adam RealMan, Cardone, and Kryssy Kocktail. 9:00; tix are $10 advance, $12 at the door. The Black Cat, 1811 14th St NW, Washington, DC.

1/25 - Calendar Girls Burlesque. Lot of my friends here, including MC Hot Todd Lincoln, and performers Tapitha Kix, Mourna Handful, Cherie Sweetbottom, Beaujolais Nouveau, Petra Precocious, Kiki Allure, Ruby Rockafella, Cherie Nuit, and Maki Rolle, in a laugh- and bump-filled tribute to the holidays. 8:00; tix are $10. The Yellow Sign Theater, 1726 N Charles St, Baltimore, MD.

As always, let me know if YOU know of anything that would be interesting. I'm always up for new events.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

At the Phantom Ball: A Lively Dance to Kick Off 2013!

It's the New Year's Ball, and we're having a grand old time, sipping champagne and kicking up our heels!

I always feel a bit Viennese at the New Year, and this is a nice example of a lively Viennese polka. You can imagine us dancing energetically to it...or as I often do, imagine can-can girls going at it madly on stage. Listen and decide.

Happy 2013 everyone! May the best of the old be the worst of the new!