Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tales of Hoffmann: The Golden Flower Pot

"The Golden Flower Pot" is one of Hoffmann's longer, and more critically acclaimed, stories, and a good starting point. It came out in 1814 and is his first major published work, as well. I read it in E. F. Bleiler's anthology "The Best Tales of Hoffmann," published in 1967 and still in print, and this particular tale was translated by Richard Carlyle. (My semester of college German does not leave me up to reading Hoffmann in the original language...)

Anselmus, a student from Dresden, is rushing to a local park on Ascension Day (May 14th, long a public holiday in German-speaking countries), when he accidentally knocks over a basket of apples and cookies that were held by an old peddler lady. She curses him volubly, he gives her what money he has to calm her, and then is left penniless for the celebrations. So, making the best of it, he ends up sitting alone under a tree...and ends up hearing magical bell-like voices coming from beautiful green-and-gold snakes. Enchanted, his vision opens up and he sees more than just the mundane realities of life.

He eventually finds employment and finds himself torn between the mundane, worldly Conrector Paulmann and his beautiful daughter Veronica (who love Anselmus but also wants him to become a great official and keep her in the manner to which she'd like to be accustomed) and his employer, Archivarius Linhorst, who seems to be a salamander (or fire elemental) from Atlantis, and his daughter, Serpentina, who is one of the snakes he saw on Ascension Day. Meanwhile, the old apple-lady seeks to destroy him; she is a witch and a sworn enemy of Lindhorst.

The story is really of Anselmus' choice between a mundane life as an official and government functionary, and the dreamy life of a poet. He has father-figures to guide him in either way, and all seem to appreciate his gifts in his own way. Two women desire him, but although Veronica loves him, she also has a strong desire for what he can do for her, while Serpentina sees his potential as a poet and wants him to develop that. Neither seems to want him Just As He Is but at least Serpentina's love is unselfish and she just wants to be at his side as he grows. Not to say Veronica is a bad person, but she is easily misguided and for a while falls under the influence of the old witch.

And the golden flower pot of the title? It's an Atlantean relic in the Lindorf home that's desired by the witch!

There's lots to enjoy in this story, and it's a great candy-box of Hoffmann's style. There's some light and funny parts, like the party where various people get drunk and dance about, throwing their wigs and the punchbowl hither and thither. But there's also scenes of menace and horror, like Veronica's attendance at a dark ceremony performed by the witch.

Of course, interpretations of this vary. Some say it's positive and optimistic, reflecting a embrace of art and creativity. Other say it's negative and pessimistic, the story meant as a snide satire of a pretentious artist's foibles and fantasies. Being a romantic, I like to think of it as positive, and also a reflection on Hoffmann's own rejection of an official career for one of art and writing. There's just a bit too much joyousness to the story that I saw to take it so negatively.

It's debated among critics and readers if the magical happenings in the story are really taking place in the "real" world or are part of some parallel fairyland. Personally, I think they're in the real world; it's a classic case of how being touched by the spirit of...well...Atlantis, or creativity, or whatever, can open your eyes to things you never noticed before, and how those with minds focused only on worldly, mundane things like money or just getting by don't seem to stop and smell the roses. It's just in this case the roses are enchanted and may get up and follow you around.

At any rate, this is a grand story, and worth reading. It's in a lot of Hoffmann collections and can be found free online. Good reading for those seeking inspiration.

Monday, December 29, 2014

E. T. A. Hoffmann: A Portrait

I'm going to be doing an occasional series of reviews called "Tales of Hoffmann," each a review of an individual story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, one of the founding fathers of modern weird fiction. I think he's unjustly overlooked these days, even though at least one of his works has seriously permeated popular culture.

His works are usually classed as Romanticism, but he often wrote in the fantasy and horror genres, and he started to synthesize the elements of the detective genre, but Poe came along and did it better. Hoffmann has also had a major impact on the music world, in multiple ways: in his lifetime he was a music critic and a composer, and some of his works, like the opera Undine, are still performed today. His literary output inspired musical works by others, most notably one opera, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, and two ballets, Coppelia by Leo Delibes, and The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.

Yes, THAT Nutcracker. The one you went to see as a kid, or took the kids to see, or just saw this season. Think of the omnipresent music from that work, played everywhere! And even of the nutcracker ornaments on the tree, or the nutcracker-ish toy soldiers used as decorations in Christmas tableaux. All of that because of this guy. It's staggering to think of the impact he had.

He was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann on January 24th, 1776, in Konigsberg, a city that was first Prussian, then Russian, then Prussian again, then German, and is currently Russian again. The boy showed promise as a writer, musician, and visual artist, but Konigsberg was something of a backwater and he never was exposed to classical forms. That probably helped him develop his own individual style, even though he read voraciously, including authors like Goethe, Schiller, Swift, and Sterne.

He eventually became a minor government official, but occasionally got in trouble for drawing slightly scandalous caricatures of military and government officials...usually being sent on to another post. His professional life was never in one spot; as a jurist, he went from one area to another, mostly in Silesia and present-day Poland. In Warsaw, he read Tieck and hung out with Friedrich de la Motte Fouque and other early practitioners of the weird. He married in 1802 and had a single daughter, who died young. His official career was sidelined by the Napoleonic Wars, and he eventually found work as a theater manager and then as the musical director of an opera company (which was short lived). He was also noted as a music critic for German newspapers, and often wrote humorously of the fictitious musician Johannes Kreisler...who later inspired a piano suite by Schumann, "Kreisleriana."

One big triumph for him was his opera Undine being performed in 1814, and ran for 25 performances until a fire broke out in the theater during a performance. He started publishing collections of his stories in 1814; a four-volume set came out that year, with further collections (and novels) continuing until his death. The most widespread story was "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" which was translated into several languages and eventually inspired the iconic ballet. His last years were very productive, with many stories, works of criticism, and musical compositions coming out, but ill health (including syphilis) caused paralysis and his last works were dictated to a secretary or his wife. He also had crises of conscience with his ideological opposition to new anti-liberal reforms in the Prussian government, and his tendency to satirize public figures in his writings often caused political difficulties for him. He passed away on June 25, 1822, at the age of 46, and his grave still stands in Berlin. (Pilgrimage? Maybe.)

His writings are regarded as the perfect examples of German Romanticism, mingling realism with fantasy that pre-dates modern "magical realism" of authors like Isabel Allende and Jonathan Carroll. His influence on later authors is immense...folks like Poe, Dickens, Dostoevski, Gogol, Baudelaire, and Kafka all credited him directly. Freud famously cited his story "The Sandman" in his work on the uncanny. His works were also marked by a wry sense of humor and satire; as much as he was part of the Romantic movement, he also poked fun at it and its followers, especially in his masterpiece novel, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, which rubbed some of his contemporaries the wrong way with its satire of artistic pretension. He also shaped the music world of his time with his writings, and set new standards for the quality of music criticism. (His musical writings were finally translated into English and collected in a single volume back in 2004. I may have to track that down.)

One thing that set Hoffmann apart, and made him a trailblazer, was how he grounded his fantasies and horrors in the everyday world. Fantasy and weird writing before that time was normally set in the distant past or in some magical otherworld, but Hoffmann's characters encountered the supernatural in the midst of everyday life of Europe of the early 19th century. And as such, they also give a nice glimpse of life in that time period. He also dealt a lot with doppelgangers and dualities. But also, he never seemed to take himself or his work completely seriously, and in the midst of an otherwise chilling tale you'll find comedic passages or episodes that may seem incongruous. But that's Hoffmann, and that's life; sometimes in the midst of dire situations and dramas, you'll find something to laugh at, even if it's rueful, reluctant laughter.

And what's with the name, you ask? He was officially E. T. W. Hoffmann, and used that on official papers, but used E. T. A. Hoffmann on his musical and literary works. According to him, the A was for Amadeus, a nod to Mozart, whom he admired.

So, keep your eyes open for the "Tales of Hoffmann" series; hopefully I'll have the first one up before January 1.

I think this is a self-portrait.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Dorothy Kathleen Broster (1878-1950) was best known as a historical novelist, if she was known at all. Her work is largely forgotten today and didn't seem to make much of an impact at the time. However, she published a collection of macabre short stories in 1942, Couching at the Door, which for a very long time was a very expensive and hard-to-find collector's item. Now, thanks to the good people at Wordsworth, it is now back in print.

These stories aren't very antiquarian or Jamesian, but they are interesting and sometimes surprisingly original. They depend a lot on psychology and at times are strongly reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, especially as some of the stories aren't really supernatural, but deal more in a Rendell-like psychological vein when you see a hideous act about to take place.

It's a slim volume, just under 200 pages, and there's only nine stories. The title story is regarded as a minor classic, in which a man who was a long seeker of sensual delights (with hints at participation in black magic), who is haunted by a ghostly feather boa. It seems an almost absurd premise, but there's real menace as the thing keeps showing up, and you can assume it's a spiritual relic of some woman whose death the man was responsible for. He tries to shift the burden to others, and tries to escape, but it always tracks him down. It's a chilling, effective story, all the better for a fresh discovery and not anthologized to death. Familiarity does breed contempt.

"From the Abyss" deals with spiritual doubles and predestined doom, and "Clairvoyance" is a very interesting story of a psychic experiment with a Japanese katana...and how the savage personality of the katana's previous owner takes over the mind of the experimenter.

"The Window" is a fairly standard romantic tale of haunting resolved by modern sensitivity. "The Pestering" starts off slow, with a couple purchasing an old home, making a tea-room of it, and being annoyed by a persistent ghost who shows up, trying to get in...but it takes a very dark and macabre black-magic twist at the end that almost makes up for the slowness of all that came before. It's a tale that's far longer than it needs to be and the payoff at the end is almost too late. "The Taste of Pomegranates" is a rather romantic tale of time-slippage.

There's some nonsupernatural tales included..."The Pavement" is a twisted psychological tale of a woman's obsession with a Roman mosaic located on her property, and her sense of stewardship toward it. "Juggernaut" tells a tale of a pusher of wheelchairs at a seaside resort who is haunted by the guilt of a dreadful act he committed. "The Promised Land" is probably her best, a tale of a woman dominated by an overbearing cousin, who finally takes a dream vacation to Italy, only to be still bossed around. It has a classic theme of a woman's desire for self-determination, but there's the conflict with the reality that she's not equipped to deal with things on her own.

This collection has its ups and downs. Some stories, like "The Pestering" and "Juggernaut," are longer than they need to be and sometimes meander unnecessarily. Some are unremarkable and standard, like "The Window" and "The Taste of Pomegranates." But the title story alone is worth the purchase price, and "The Promised Land" is also quite good.

So, it's up to you. Thankfully, it's back in print after being obscure and lost for too long.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Drizzly December Night at the Movies!

We meet at the usual restaurant, exchanging horror stories of Christmas shopping and our yearly dread of family gatherings, and dear heaven, will it never snow??? The dank, dreary drizzle that has dominated December has destroyed our demeanor.

After dinner is over, and we've shared delicious desserts (really, that new chocolate torte is almost too much, but the certosino was surprisingly light), we head up the street to that old movie theater. In all the dreariness of the weather, it's a welcoming, almost cozy atmosphere.

Tonight's special screening: the 1933 mystery film The Sphinx.

Sure, the film may have its shortcomings, but it's got Lionel Atwill. LIONEL ATWILL, folks. He's always first-rate; one of those great actors who always gave his all, no matter what.

The movie over, we turn our collars to the drizzle and head up the street to that old cafe....

Sunday, December 7, 2014

At the Phantom Ballet

It's December, so of course we're at the ballet! It's a yearly tradition! And it's quite nice this year. We got tickets through a friend, and the production is very straightforward and traditional without being stodgy, not like last year's Nutcracker that was "re-imagined" as taking place in an alley in Montreal, or the one the year before that actually managed to make the story dull. Wasn't that a disaster?

The music is lovely as always. I don't dare put up the whole score, but here's one of my favorite parts of The Nutcracker, that is nice to play when you're watching the snow fall outside.

I know I'm late this month; I've had a very busy week and I was also trying to find a video of Pinkham's "Guardian Owl" from his Nativity Madrigals, but there isn't one to be found. I've also been slightly ill, dealing with some sort of bug that left me with an annoying lingering cough. So I fell back on an old reliable and hope everyone's having a better December than I am!

Sunday, November 30, 2014


This is another delightful volume from Ash-Tree Press; not only does it revive a little-known occult detective, but it's also the second of a four-volume series of Burrage's supernatural fiction. It's actually two volumes in one; one a collection of occult detective stories, and the next a collection of ghost stories that also includes some occult detection.

Not much is told to us about Francis Chard, except his tales are told in the usual Holmesian fashion with them being narrated by a Boswellian companion; in this case, a fellow named Torrance. Chard investigates the paranormal and writes articles on it, and is called in several times by those who have read his articles.

Of the adventures, "The Bungalow at Shammerton" was the most memorable for me, a particularly repulsive haunting of a riverside house by a squishy, drowned ghost. They mostly consist of haunted-house affairs, but there's also an ancestral curse, a benign haunting at a school, and a woman tormented by a supernatural visitant. Of note was "The Girl in Blue," which has Chard telling a story of an early encounter with the supernatural, and it's rather nice as it give some depth to his character and adds a dash of romance.

Chard's adventures are fairly standard occult-detective fare, without much to truly make them stand out. That being said, they're also fun reads and worth the price of the ebook for fans of the genre.

"Some Ghost Stories" takes up the second half, and it's a nice selection of eerie tales. It was pleasant to find that I hadn't read all of them in anthologies before...although, to be fair, while they're solid examples of the genre, and they're all good, none are exceptional enough to stand out in any significant way.

The longest are the melancholy "Playmates," and the novella "The House by the Crossroads." The rest are mostly of standard short-story length. Most are of the standard haunted house, retributive phantoms, or "Was it a dream?" scenarios, although there's one of how phantom gamblers corrupt a mortal man with a gambling addiction that's rather interesting despite the rather obvious moralizing. A final section, "The Man Who Made Haunted Houses His Hobby," has some adventures of another occult investigator, Derek Scarpe, which seems to have been intended to kick off a series but it seems to have been abortive. There's only two stories with Scarpe but they are good fun and it's a shame Burrage abandoned them.

It's out of print in hardcover, and one version of this is available from Amazon. Oddly, the Ash-Tree ebook can be obtained directly from them; go the Ash-Tree eBook page to learn more.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Chilly November Night at the Movies

After a day of rain, the wind has started blowing cold. We clutch our hats and huddle in our coats as we wander into our favorite restaurant, sitting at our usual table, looking over the specials, and gently teasing the new waiter who isn't sure what to make of our crowd.

Dinner is eaten while we tell tales of our October adventures and compare plans for Thanksgiving and express our horror at Black Friday shopping. Not to mention the complaints of encroaching Christmas songs, decorations, and commercials!

After dinner, it's up the street to that old movie house we love. Tonight's show is 1933's "The Phantom Broadcast"!

This overlooked little gem is full of real-life Hollywood landmarks, many of which I'm told are still standing. Not to mention great music that somehow never caught on, which is a crying shame.

After the movie, we brace ourselves against the cold and head up the street to that little cafe...tonight we'll need something hot!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Looking Back on October

Whew. October was a busy month.

Aside from my work going wild (which I'm not going to talk about, really can't talk about, except our operations are expanding and we'll be changing our name in a few months as we've outgrown the old), I was getting into a lot more than usual. One of the good things about living in the Baltimore suburbs as opposed to the DC suburbs is that my money goes much farther.

My friends at the Yellow Sign Theatre in Baltimore's trendy artsy Station North neighborhood (where I once considered moving) ran an innovatively-staged film series. For three weeks, a different film was featured each week, and each film was hosted by a different "horror host". What made it even better was that the theater was done up as a basement rec room, with a "slacker teen" host who had to deal with interruptions from his mother ("Oh, I just thought your friends might want a snack,") and a grouchy, overbearing father who appeared only as a silhouette. It was a blast going to that and I hope they do it again. The films were Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, The Ape Man (with Bela Lugosi), and the sleazoid classic Bloody Pit of Horror. There were also commercial breaks (usually vintage) and a great sensation of being over at a friend's place, watching TV.

One evening I impulsively went to Bennett's Curse, a huge and elaborate haunted house in Jessup, MD. I was deeply impressed; it was the biggest and most technically professional haunted attraction I'd ever seen. There were large animatronic figures that must have been expensive, as well as a section of the attraction done in 3-D paints (patrons were given glasses). It took quite a while to go through, and sometimes was pitch dark and you had to feel your way. It was a real adventure and next year I want to get a group together and go. It's expensive as these things go ($30 basic admission) but was worth every penny.

The HallowRead conference was an interesting experience. It's currently a one-day event, a sort of micro-con, in a community center in Ellicott City, MD, just down the road from me. The focus is on "steampunk, horror, paranormal and urban fantasy" although I was bemused to notice that the romance end of these genres was heavily represented. There was a steampunk tea that I managed to miss (it required separate admission) but I will be sure to attend next time. There were panel discussions and some socializing, and a small dealer's room that was primarily a chance for the authors to sell their own works. I bought a Baltimore-set paranormal novel, and had a zesty conversation with the author about finding a moral compass when you're a nonbeliever, and a couple of gay romance novels which I found out is actually a thriving genre for female readers. I also met and connected with a charming lady who turned out to be the wife of a Facebook friend, whom I'd never met, so that was a charming coincidence. So in the end, it wasn't a literary Monster-Mania but it was enjoyable, and with potential to expand into a full-weekend convention, and I hope it does.

My HallowRead ticket included admission to two events that evening that I decided to attend, which I think nobody else did. One was the "Haunted Ruins" of the Patapsco Female Institute. Check the link for the story behind the site; it's a ruined girl's school on a hill overlooking the town. It was a typical amateur haunted house in some aspects, but was given a punch of eerieness by taking place in actual ruins and using the actual folklore.

The other event...oy. It was an opportunity to sit in on an actual "ghost hunt" at the Ellicott City Historical Society by serious "paranormal investigators." Now, I'm a skeptic about such things, but I thought, what the hey, it would good to see this sort of thing in person and firsthand. I wondered if they would be cynical charlatans but no, they were sincere believers, although perhaps a bit off in the wooniverse. The most down-to-earth member of the group was their resident Wiccan, who was very sensible about a lot of things, dismissing "orb" photos as mostly being dust, moisture, or insects. One spot for investigation was a place in the basement, where several people claimed to have felt nauseated near some broken tombstones. Several said they felt queasy, but I honestly said I felt nothing. (I wondered how much of the queasiness was their own built-up expectations.) They would sit down and try to communicate with the spirits using a smartphone app called "Echovox." That's right, a $20 smartphone app that lets you talk to the dead somehow. I found the notion fairly ridiculous myself.

Anyway, a long period of questioning the spirits and getting fragmentary answers followed (Echovox seems to record ambient sounds and play them back in fragmentary bits so it will sound otherworldly and you can interpret them according to your own expectations), and I went off my shift and to the upstairs. One lady and I wandered into the main museum and while there did seem to be a real cold spot in there, I realized quickly it was because the door was open. Their "EMF readers" were getting all sorts of readings there (I suspect those things function randomly, based on my own observations) and then people clustered in to investigate this new "haunting," they wondered why it was warming up so much. I stood back thinking, "Hellooo, body heat," but said nothing. Eventually, I had enough, and was horribly tired, so I excused myself and went home. still a nonbeliever.

I also attended my friend Phil's annual Cemetery Potluck, held every October in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC. That is turning into the goth/steampunk/dandy event of the season, and I'm always flattered to be included and welcomed in that diverse group, although I need to step up my game with the outfits.

Halloween itself I spent in DC, thrifting and visiting a favorite tea shop and ambling about downtown, and attending a burlesque show in the evening. However, I think next year I will stay in the Baltimore area...I didn't get home until 3 am and was a wreck the next day.

This weekend I have nothing planned, and am content to limit my travels to the gym, library, and grocery store. There are times I lament my ongoing singlehood but tonight I'm actually grateful to be alone. A weekend home alone with the TV and my books is welcome after all the running around I did in October.

To close, here's a favorite tune for this time of year...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Cold November Day at the Phantom Recital Hall

The Halloween festivities are behind us, and we're all grateful for an extra hour of sleep last night. (I know I am!) It's an uncharacteristically cold and windy day today, and searching for something to do, we find there's a student recital at the music school. Tickets are cheap and available; why not go?

We quickly get ourselves together; nothing fancy, just make sure your hair is combed and your clothes clean. Warm coats make their season debut, and we arrive at the venue just in time.

Dimitri Shostakovitch was a 20th-century composer who often had difficulties with the Soviet censors for his use of "decadent" modern styles but who eventually was recognized as one of the greatest of all time. This particular work, complete in 1970, was one of the first Russian works that called for the players to tap the bodies of their instruments with their bows...which has struck some listener's ears as sounding like rattling bones. There is something undeniably remote and eerie about this work, one of the more interesting in the canon of classical quartets.

We return to the cold and wind outside; it's still slightly early, so we'll go home to a light, home-cooked dinner, a refreshing comfort after too many meals out and too much party fare. But something about the rattling bones and remoteness of the violins sticks with us...

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween from Dust & Corruption!

I send all my readers and friends my best wishes for a wild and crazy (yet safe) Halloween! I'll be going to a burlesque show in DC, and I have the day off so I plan on doing some shopping & lunching out. Hope you have fun, whatever you're doing. And even if you're staying in, have a pleasant evening!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Absinthe and I

My fondness for absinthe is well-known. So well-known, in fact, I was to appear in a local podcast, The Curioso, for their special absinthe episode. You can hear me reading a poem, talking about absinthe, and making some absinthe cocktails. Give it a listen, why don't you?

Sorry I haven't been updating much. October has been busy, both with fun stuff and with work. In fact, work has gone berserk. I won't go into details but it's kept me hopping and often leaves me too burnt out at the end of the day to do much blogging. Things should quiet down in a bit, though.

And for a special lucky bonus, here's a video from the podcast taping. A shirt button came undone over my stomach, making me look even more horrifying fat than I already am. (I started going to a gym, though, and I think I've lost some weight already...)

Monday, October 20, 2014

An October Monday Night at the Cinema

It's time for our monthly night out at the movies! The pre-show dinner involves quite a bit of conversation about our plans for Halloween, the difficulty of coming up with costume ideas, the obscene cost of decorations, and nostalgia for our own days of trick-or-treating.

Then it's up the street to that slightly shabby old cinema for the classic film!

This month, it's one of the first sound Sherlock Holmes films, A Study in Scarlet, starring Reginald Owen as Holmes, and co-starring Anna May Wong!

The show finally over, we go up the street in the increasingly cool air for that final drink before going our separate ways...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

After a busy weekend

I was busy last weekend...

Monster-Mania was this weekend. I've attended this Philadelphia-area convention a few times in the past, but now they've started having a second show in  Baltimore so it's pretty much a given that I have to go.

There were a lot of neat people (like the couple above) but it was mostly a dealers and autographs event. I'm not much of an autograph person, and most of 'em charge of autographs anyway and that's money that I can spend on books and DVDs. There was a movie room as well, but not much real programming aside from that. The dealer's room was mostly collectibles, and that's also something I'm not big on; the manufactured "collector's item" stuff usually leaves me cold. (I'm a picky bastard.) But I did find some cool handcrafted things, like a boutonniere made from old playing cards and with a skull at the center that I'm going to wear to a picnic soon, and a comfy pillow made to look like Sam from the delightful Halloween anthology film Trick'r'Treat. I also got a dozen DVDs, including a few I've been unable to find for a while, like The Big Crimewave (a Canadian noir comedy) and The Unnamable and The Unnamable II. DVDs were surprisingly cheap; I wonder if the trend toward streaming is making them more affordable.

I did get to meet independent filmmaker James Balsamo, which was pretty cool. Yeah. that's me on the right.

Sunday was a small ceremony at Edgar Allan Poe's Grave.

It was organized by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, a group I should look into joining at some point. Yesterday was the anniversary of his death, so every year about this time they arrange a flower-laying ceremony. It was a quiet, calm observance, and everyone in attendance was invited to lay flowers if they wanted. This was followed by everyone retreating to the Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in downtown Baltimore, where they had arranged a lecture on Poe's precarious finances.

The Poe Room is gorgeous and there's tons of rare editions in the shelves; I could while away many hours there. But anyway, the lecture basically confirmed that Poe made some bad financial choices, but was also hampered by the difficulties of earning a living writing, and also the reality of a bad economy at the time. There was some fun discussion afterward, and I got to raise the question of whether Poe was really the first to create the detective story or if it was E. T. A. Hoffmann. (My theory? Hoffmann started to piece together the elements, but Poe synthesized them better.)

I also read this oldie, after coming across references to it as one of the great gothic mystery classics. How was it? Well, badly dated in quite a few ways, but still fairly enjoyable. In WWII-era San Francisco, Hilda Moreau (whose husband is away in the Navy) goes to visit her sisters-in-law, who inhabit a crumbling Victorian house. Eldest sister Pauline controls the purse strings of the family trust, and browbeats (and sometimes blackmails) the other sisters into following her orders. Pauline ends up murdered, and a shady servant and an even shadier lady lawyer end up dead as well before things are resolved.

It's an interesting milieu; almost all characters are women, a reflection of the wartime days when almost all the men were off fighting. But every so often I had to look up some reference that I didn't get, and other aspects of the wartime life are quite alien to 21st-century readers. The resolution also seemed rushed, as if Collins was getting close to her page limit and decided to wrap things up. The solution comes almost as a mistake, rather than as the result of deduction and reason. I guess I'm too much of a fan of the Analytical school.

In personal news, I joined a gym! Yeah, in that photo above, I've got quite the gut. I went for the first time on Tuesday and just walked on a treadmill for a bit, but watch out. In another decade I'll be svelte and sexy.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

October at the Phantom Concert Hall

On a crisp October evening, we dress up and head to that old, partly-restored concert hall that lay forgotten in a shabby part of town until it was revived recently. Empty storefronts are turning into shops, clubs, and restaurants, and streets that were once a blight are now safe to walk again.

The hall itself still has a way to go; the seats aren't the most comfortable, and there are spaces where it obviously needs a coat of paint, but the acoustics are still good and there's a romance in the shabby grandeur.

The orchestra is a newly-formed one, doing their first concert. There's a few of the standard repertoire, some readings of autumnal poetry, and then this charming piece....

We exit, smiling, exchanging words with the conductor and some of the musicians, including that handsome violinist and that blonde oboist. This will be something to return to.

The night air has grown cooler and embraces us as we leave....

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

SLEEP NO MORE by L. T. C. Rolt

L. T. C. Rolt (1910-1974) is one of those lesser-known writers you wish more people knew about. His ghost stories were a minor part of his literary output; his efforts were mostly spent in writing about waterways, railroads, cars, biographies of civil engineers, industrial history, and travel, and he was a promoter of leisure cruising in Britain's inland waterways. According to some he was also notable early on for his "green" philosophy. He seems like he was quite a guy.

Sleep No More (published 1948) is interesting as many of the stories eschew the usual manor houses and crumbling churches of M. R. James and his school, but embracing Britain's industrial and transit landscape, which makes him a somewhat different voice in the field of English ghost stories.

So, to give you an overview...

"The Mine" tells of subterranean horrors in a lead mine; brief, but with a punch. "The Cat Returns" is lacking punch, being a fairly standard tale of ghostly appearances with a final "surprise." "Bosworth Summit Pound" has a haunting on a ghostly stretch of canal.

"New Corner" is interesting in that it's a ghost story built around auto racing, with a strange series of accidents happening at a newly-developed turning in a racecourse. "Cwm Garon" is the longest tale of the bunch, the most literary, and the most abstract...but at the same time, fascinating. A man visits an isolated Welsh valley and becomes entranced by its beauty, but also feels a sneaking suspicion of some lurking evil in the landscape. It's a great example of the subgenre of "landscape horror" where it's not really an evil house or specific structure, but the land itself that radiates menace.

"A Visitor at Ashcombe" is probably the most Jamesian of the stories, with a nasty haunting in a rural manor house, purchased by a nouveau riche industrialist. "The Garside Fell Disaster" is a cracker, with a railroad accident and hints of an ancient evil in an isolated train tunnel. "World's End" is a brief tale of premonition and death.

"Hear Not My Steps" is extremely brief, a tale of a haunting, but also seems too brief, as if it's an unfinished fragment thrown in to fill out the collection. Or perhaps it's an experiment in the form. This is more horror fiction than ghost story, really. "Agony of Flame" is a tale of a haunting in an Irish castle, but is very interesting for being very traditionally Jamesian in content but also kicking off with a reference to the atom bomb and Bikini Atoll, setting the tale squarely in a post-WWII world.

"Hawley Bank Foundry" is probably the best example of Rolt's style and fascinations, as it deals with hauntings and unholy things in an old foundry re-opened for war work, and is in the halfway mark of the shift from the pre-war "antiquarian" school of ghost story and the post-war "visionary" school of ghost and horror fiction.

"Music Hath Charms" is also an excellent story that tweaks the form. It's got an old house and antiquarian content, with an antique music box having connections with sorcery and possession, but the story structure is much more modern. "The Shouting" is more landscape horror, with ancient evil suffusing the very land itself. The final story, "The House of Vengeance," is well-done enough but a standard story of ghosts replaying a violent scene.

So there you have it. An interesting and fairly unusual voice in ghost fiction, and also in some ways a transitional figure as proper and civilized ghosts of the Victorian and Edwardian period gave way to the more abstract terrors of the postwar era. His deft touch with industrial settings and for landscape horror make this volume (his only supernatural work) a worthy addition to one's library. I wonder about his other works, but they may be hard to get hold of here in the U.S.; I'll have to see.

I read a nice paperback edition from The History Press, now out of print, but the lovely folks at Ash-Tree Press have a very reasonably priced ebook version available.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September's Night Out at the Movies!

It's a one of the first cool nights of September as we gather for our regular dinner before the movie. There's tales of work, of various adventures, and of school starting. Tonight's specials are quite good, and there's much good-natured joshing over the bill. By now the waiters are finally used to us.

We go up the street to that old movie theater and settle in for the show...

First up is a 1903 confection from George Melies, "The Infernal Cakewalk"!

(Who says there isn't dancing in Hell?)

The feature presentation is the 1933 thriller "A Shriek in the Night," starring Ginger Rogers!

The show over, we wander off in search of a drink at the local cafe. You need something to fortify you against the chilly night air of autumn!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


This was a random find at the library, and turns out to be Thomas' fifth book of Holmes pastiches.

Three stories are contained therein. The first is "The Case of a Boy's Honour" in which Holmes is summoned by the real-life Sir John Fisher, a noted admiral, to investigate an accused theft by a schoolboy at a naval-oriented school. The mystery itself is rather low-stakes, but it involves a good middle-class student with a bright future being besmirched by spoiled, privileged upper-class students. It's nicely resolved by a bit of bluffing, but is diverting enough.

The second is the longest, and qualifies as a novella. "The Case of the Ghosts of Bly" plunks Holmes down into Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Holmes comes on the case after the end of the James tale, with the governess (now named Victoria Temple) imprisoned in Broadmoor, and questions being raised about the deaths of both Miles and Flora (!). This is a decent job of turning James' supernatural narrative into a tale of crime and conspiracy. The spectral appearances are given a good explanation, and there's even an explanation of the "things" that Miles said at school that got him expelled. This is one of the better examples of shoehorning Holmes into an established story and having him resolve it.

The third, "The Case of the Matinee Idol," was a bit annoying as it rewrites some of Holmes' character. It's preceded by an essay called "Sherlock Holmes the Actor" which now adds some time on the stage to Holmes' resume; while it makes a certain sense, with Holmes adding to his disguise abilities, it's never referred to anywhere else. And in the story, with Holmes and Watson investigating the poisoning of a popular actor while performing in "Hamlet" on New Year's Eve, Holmes openly refers to having played Hamlet in the past, which is rather jarring.

On the whole, it's irregular pastiche, with the best part being "The Ghosts of Bly." The first story is slightly marred by a judgmental tone toward the school establishment of the time that takes one out of it, and the third so suddenly presents us with Holmes as a former actor that it's hard to get wrapped up in. It feels like a pastiche written by someone who only knew vaguely of the Holmes canon.

It was still entertaining enough, and I may check out the others by this author.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September Miscellany

I don't have anything worthy of a post itself, so here goes a few small things...

  • I turned 49. Been coping with the feeling that 50 is just around the corner and all that age stuff. Still, I probably shouldn't lament too much, my grandfather was 102 when he kicked off.
  • On similar lines, a recent doctor's appointment showed that my blood pressure, cholesterol level, blood sugar level, etc. were all doing very well...but my weight has gone crazy. So yeah, definitely joining a gym soon. I need to lose a few dozen pounds.
  • Saturday, I was tending to some business that didn't take as long as I expected (closing out a bank account, I'm shifting my business to a credit union) so on a whim I went to the Baltimore Comic-Con. I'm not much of a comics person, but I thought, what the hell, it may be worth the adventure. I only spent the afternoon, but it was fun. I ran into my friend Denise who's a MAJOR comics person and through her I got quite a few introductions to various artists. I only bought one comic, a one-shot from Rocket Ink Studios called "Portraits of Poe," but I got some other swag, like a t-shirt with an expressionistic portrait of Poe, a pair of horror novels from ChiZine Publications, and (ahem) a collector's market DVD of the first season of PENNY DREADFUL. Not a bad haul.
  • Coming up on the weekend of 10/3-5, the Monster-Mania Con at Hunt Valley, MD (just outside Baltimore), a horror movie convention, and on 10/24-26 is Hallowread in Ellicott City, MD (just south of Baltimore, and a short drive from my digs in Catonsville), a gathering of "authors and fans of paranormal/urban fantasy, steampunk, and horror." In other words, I'll be at both.
  • Reading a couple different things right now; will report & review when I finish.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Phantom Theme....

It's a cool night in the city. You're on your own, walking down a slightly unfamiliar street. You're in a new stylish coat and a snappy hat. You've been reading mystery novels and pulp fiction lately; your appetite for adventure and romance is razor-sharp. You're ready for anything to come your way. And from somewhere, you hear some unfamiliar music that sets the mood...

This fun little piece was written by John Barry for a TV series that aired in the UK but never in the US. I happened to be able to watch an episode long, long ago (I mean 1980s long ago) and the music stuck with me. You can only imagine how happy I was to track it down on YouTube and hear the full thing again.

Hey...that brunette is looking at you from the doorway of the Chinese restaurant there. What's that about a message to carry? What does "the rosette is in the field" mean? I think we have an adventure here...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

This 'n' That - August 2014

  • It's a slow time of the year, except for my work, which is crazy-busy. And we're expanding in unexpected directions, and I may require an assistant in another year or so.
  • I've expanded in unexpected directions as well; in the last two years I've gained far too much weight. I'm to see my doctor in a few weeks and I'll have a chat with him about possibly joining a gym. If I do, I may post photos of my progress, so be warned.
  • I haven't been out to the movies much this summer; the two flicks that stand out the most to me are GODZILLA (fun, but flawed; too much time spent on Lt. Bland) and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (fun, but I'm not over the moon about it as others are). Not many horror flicks that I've noticed; I saw AS ABOVE SO BELOW advertised at the local cineplex but then I found out it's yet another found footage film and I just groaned.
  • I went to a pen show in Northern Virginia earlier this month, which was very interesting, and came home with a vintage fountain pen and a hand-crafted ballpoint. They also have a lot of watches and pocket knives, as well as some women's jewelry. Fountain pen culture is interesting and I'll have to delve into it more. There's also a nostalgia convention in a few weeks locally, and a horror convention (Monster-Mania) here in October, so I should be having some fun.
  • Tomorrow is my 49th birthday. Next year I hope to have a big blow-out with few survivors.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August's Night Out at the Movies!

It's a humid night, the kind where you wish it would just make up its mind and rain already. But the sun is setting earlier, leaves are starting to turn and fall, kids are heading back to school. We're meeting at the usual restaurant, chatting and catching up. We compare used-book finds (A hardcover of Arsene Lupin?), concerts we've attended (Their performance of the Beethoven sonata was...well...a bit of a mess...), antique shows (What? Laura found a Viennese porcelain Muse?), museum trips (There's a wonderful little Daumier in that gallery that's so easy to miss...), and assorted other adventures (There's a seafood restaurant near the beach...nothing fancy but the food is amazing...). After our usual haggling about how to split the bill, we head up the street to that shabby old theater we love so much...

First up is a 1907 George Melies short, "The Eclipse."

And the feature presentation is 1933's "Sucker Money."

"Sucker Money" is an unusual beast. It was produced by Dorothy Reid, a marginally talented woman who husband, silent-film star Wallace Reid, had died from morphine addiction. She then dedicated her life and career to "message" films, including several antidrug flicks like the now-lost "Human Wreckage", or tackling prostitution in "The Red Kimona" (which was remarkable for its sympathetic treatment of sex workers). "Sucker Money" was her attempt to warn people about fake psychics and mediums.

That being said, she wasn't much of an actress, and even less a screenwriter, director, and producer. Sorry, folks.

The show over (at last!), we wander up the street for a final drink for the night...

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Creative Spirit Seance

Last night, I went with some friends to Baltimore's trendy Hampden neighborhood to attend a seance.

Of course, it was really a theatrical presentation. A hard-nosed skeptic like me wouldn't pay money to attend a "real" spiritualist seance. Long, long ago, I attended a performance at Wheaton, MD's late, great Psychic Ghost Theater for my birthday; that was great fun. It started off with a normal magic show, then a demonstration of a Victorian "spirit cabinet," and then a harrowing "real" seance that used a lot of the tricks that fraudulent mediums use. It's a wonderful memory that I carry with me.

This was, well, different. It's held in the upper floor of an old church (which turns out to be a private home rented out to productions), and it's a cool space. We were handed wires with which to sculpt into anything we wanted, and then gathered in a small area where host David London gave a talk on creativity, and then talked to us about the sculptures we created. Eventually he collected the sculptures and melted them in an "alchemical furnace" and dumped the molten result in a bowl of cold water. We were given pieces and told to look at them and think of what we saw.

It was like that, full of little creative exercises. We drew on triangles and they were assembled into a larger puzzle, after a trick in which an audience member identified the blank triangles from the drawn-on ones. There was a guided meditation followed by a ritual washing of hands (with the water turning black, supposedly our negative energy being washed away). We sat at an elaborate seance table where we did some summoning of spirits, an experiment in automatic writing, and finally a full-on seance where he gave a long, rambling speech on the nature of "the creative spirit" that I admit went in one ear and out the other.

It was odd, a mixture of magic show and Wiccan ritual. (Yes, I have a legit frame of reference; in my checkered past I was actually the high priest of a Wiccan coven for a while.) London later admitted there were some illusions that were supposed to go off during the full seance that didn't, and there were some parts of the show that didn't seem to quite connect. London joked about how it was a late show and some things weren't going right, so I suppose that would explain that.

I'm not entirely sorry I went, but at the same time it wasn't what I was expecting; I had thought it would be more illusions and less psychodrama. I found some of the New Agey-ness about it off-putting, but that's just me. There was a time in my life when I was very, very into that sort of thing, but those days are long behind me now. Along with a lot of depression and instability. Those were dark days.

Maybe it's your thing, or someone else's thing, but it really wasn't mine. And that's not a dismissal of David London's talents or his work into this show. It's just that I'm really not the kind of audience he should have had.

The Creative Spirit Seance plays to audiences of 12, and runs until August 30th. Tickets are $40.

Monday, August 4, 2014

August at the Phantom Opera House!

Tonight we're off to the opera! We got bargain tickets through a friend, had a festive dinner at a fun and inexpensive restaurant, and are now snugly ensconced in the opera house. The show is Weber's Der Freisch├╝tz, a German Romantic opera from 1821 based on a folktale about a marksman who uses cursed bullets.

In the second act, there's a famous scene where the hero and the villain descend to the Wolves' Den, an area in the forest noted for the ghosts and demons that inhabit it. There they meet with the Black Huntsman, Samiel, and make a bargain to forge the seven magic bullets with which the flawed hero, Max, will win a marksmanship contest and a prize that will enable him to marry his beloved Agathe. Villainous Casper (not a friendly ghost), however, has other plans, including not telling Max that the seventh bullet, once fired, will have Max carried off by Samiel, and buying Casper more time on earth. (He made a dark bargain with Samiel himself years ago...)

The music is stirring...in fact, here we go...

This scene is often described as the greatest Romantic depiction of supernatural horror, and it's a corker. I chose a video without action, leaving the listener to imagine for themselves how the action goes. After you listen, go read a synopsis or find a video of the scene, and see how close your mental image was.

The scene ends, the intermission arrives, and we rush to the bar for a glass of Rhine wine while calming our shudders. And vowing to investigate Romantic opera and music more. Bring back Romanticism!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

IN GHOSTLY COMPANY by Amyas Northcote

Amyas Northcote (1864-1923) is an author about whom little is known despite the usual biographical details. Born in England, emigrated to the US in 20s where he was a businessman in Chicago, then returned to England in 1900, eventually becoming a justice of the peace in Buckinghamshire. This, his sole volume of stories and the only writing he seems to have ever done, came out in 1921, and he died 18 months later. No other writings seem to have been found after his death. Not much is really known of his life, or what he did for a living, or what his thoughts and passions were, or why he decided to write ghost stories. But that being said, his stories are pretty darned good.

First in this edition is the oft-anthologized "Brickett Bottom," a famously unsettling tale of a house that isn't there and disappearances. You'll find it in a lot of "best-ever" or "haunted-house" anthologies, and I've heard it dramatized for radio. It's a remarkably dark, bleak story, and relentlessly macabre. In other words, you HAVE to read it.

Others follow some more of the standard fare. "Mr. Kershaw and Mr. Wilcox" is of a psychic dream. "The Late Earl of D." follows a ghostly re-enactment of a murder. "Mr. Mortimer's Diary" tells of a man hounded by the spirit of someone he deeply wronged. "The House in the Wood" is a very, very standard tale of a child's ghost warning a parent of danger. "The Young Lady in Black" is also very, very standard, of a ghost that returns to fulfill a promise. "The Governess' Story" recounts an auditory haunting that replays a despondent teen's suicide.

However, there are some others that stand out, at least for me.

"In the Woods" is a dark, unsettling tale of a lonely teenage girl who explores the forests on her own, only to find herself under the spell of the resident nature spirits. It's rather Machenesque, and blends Victorian whimsy with dark menace. There's no real plot; it's almost a lengthy vignette, with no real resolution. But it's darn good and worthy of more attention.

"The Steps" concerns itself with a wealthy society girl who turns down a soldier's marriage proposal, twice. He swears to have her, and then is called into action and dies. His steps haunt her and hound her. It's standard stuff, except for its nastiness. The soldier is never depicted as being all that evil or forceful; he's a lonely man, deeply infatuated, and thwarted in love. The girl is never depicted as terribly nasty either, just a normal girl of her class. So her ghostly persecution is not that of a deserved revenge on a heartless person, or even of a psychotic stalker and innocent victim. It has more the feel of a random bit of spectral evil that just happens to happen...and thus is very chilling.

Two stories, "The Downs" and "The Late Mrs. Fowke," are very folkloric. "The Downs" has a man walking across a stretch of land on a night when the spirits of those who died there walk...and it's strange and hallucinatory. "The Late Mrs. Fowke" concerns a clergyman who discovers his wife has dealings with Old Nick. Both have a strong rural atmosphere and are quite fun.

Northcote's stories are generally set in England or America, but "The Picture" is set in Hungary. It's not a great tale, but it is full of menace, where a girl does one of those silly rituals to see the face of her future husband, and later finds that face on a decades-old portrait hanging in a local castle. It has a macabre end, to be sure, but it's never clearly explained WHY it happens, which makes it all the more unsettling.

The last story is also a bit different. "Mr. Oliver Carmichael" is not really a ghost story, but a tale of occultism. A man has a chance meeting with a woman who seems to recognize him, and who takes a malicious interest in him. It turns out she's the reincarnation of a soul that was knit to his, and while his rose to light and goodness, hers sank to evil and darkness. It's actually not a very good story; very little happens. It's quite a bit of buildup and no payoff. But it's interesting because it's got that didactic tone that you normally find in stories written by True Believers, and it makes me wonder if perhaps Northcote had been fascinated by that sort of thing, and if that had something to do with his decision to write ghost stories. Unfortunately I can only conjecture.

This is a handsome, slim paperback from Wordsworth, and with a nice introduction by David Stuart Davies. It's worth picking up if you come across it.

A facsimile of the original dust jacket.

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, and an interesting parallel

After many years, I finally reread The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson's deservedly famous horror novel. I hadn't been too impressed with it when I first read it back in the 80s, but upon rereading it I was rather surprised at parts I didn't remember, things I somehow missed back then. At the time I'd seen the film on video quite a few times (I rented it regularly at my favorite video store) and perhaps I was too wowed by the film to really appreciate the novel. Maybe.

The Haunting of Hill House is one of the all-time classics, both of the horror genre and of literature in general. Horror is a genre that frequently works best in the short-story format, and many horror novels end up being drawn-out and tedious. But Haunting works spectacularly well at its novel length; it NEEDS to be novel-length.

The novel concerns itself with Prof. Montague, who gathers a group of people to spend a summer at Hill House, a notoriously haunted New England mansion. His small group is Luke, a wastrel member of the family who owns the house, and hopes to inherit it one day; Theodora, a bohemian artist (and possible esbian, which is played up in the movie) who has ESP, and Eleanor Vance, who experienced poltergeist phenomena as a child. Eleanor is the central character of the novel; at 32, she has spent the last 11 years of her life caring for her invalid mother and never really living her own life. Her mother has recently died, Eleanor (Nell) is venturing out of her neurotic repression, but isn't up to the menace of Hill House.

You may remember some of its terrors from the 1963 movie...the pounding on the walls, the writing, Nell's final madness...although the movie plays up the ambiguity that the haunting may exist partially in Nell's mind, and it may be the result of latent telekinetic powers going berserk as her sanity crumbles. But it leaves out some memorable eerie events from the book, although one would have been difficult to film, and some occur outside, while the film keeps the action firmly within the house's walls until the end, keeping up the atmosphere of claustrophobia.

But one thing that really stood out for me was the way in which it's a psychological novel, delving into Eleanor's troubled mind, her desire to belong, her bitterness at her family, her dream of finding love, all that...and it called to mind another movie I'd seen recently and loved, the 1941 Bette Davis classic, Now, Voyager.

Based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager is the tale of Charlotte Vale, a plain, neurotic spinster who has been kept on a short leash by an overbearing and brutally controlling mother. She has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized for a few months, then goes on a cruise where she finds the love of her life. It's actually a lot more modern than it seems (I'm leaving out a number of story developments, so go watch it for yourself if you don't know it).

There's a lot that's pretty obvious: both concern neurotic, repressed, mother-dominated women who are never allowed to grow up and be their own person. Both go on a voyage that changes their respective lives. But while Prouty's heroine has a breakdown, therapy, then goes on her journey, Jackson's Nell has her journey, then her breakdown. But Nell obviously hopes for some romance, for something to change her life and make it whole. All through the book she keeps using the phrase "Journeys end in lovers meeting," and there are flirtations with Luke (and some subtle overtures from Theodora), but ultimately it seems her lover is destined to be Hill House itself.

In fact, Nell's expectations seem to be a result of reading Prouty's work and other "women's novels" and "women's films" of the period, that usually depicted women suffering glamorously and then rewarded with True Love. (Prouty is a bit different; she dared to show the mother/daughter relationship as a destructive one, and her heroine eventually comes to value autonomy over conventional marriage.) It makes sense; Now, Voyager was published in 1941, and The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. I can't help but have the feeling that Jackson was at least in part commenting on a generation of women entering the Space Age but raised on the women-directed media of the 40s and 50s.

So, read 'em both and see what you think. Jackson's novel has never been out of print; Prouty's is available in print and as an ebook, currently being rediscovered as a minor landmark in feminist literature. Or watch the movies; both are quite close to their source material and both are bona fide cinematic classics.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

July's Night Out at the Movies!

The evenings are still sun-drenched, but at least the heat and humidity have eased. Our regular dinner has sparkling conversation and cool drinks. Tales of vacations, family trips, and Independence Day mishaps (fireworks going off twenty feet over the ground?), or else gentle tales of laying in a hammock with a book for a whole summer afternoon.

After lovely icy desserts, we stroll up the street to our usual theater...

Tonight's program starts off with a short by George Melies from 1903...

Then the feature presentation, 1933's "The Vampire Bat," with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray!

The show over, we wander, as always, up the street to that little cafe for a final drink, not noticing the bats flying overhead...

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

GHOSTS, GHOULS, & OTHER HORRORS by Bernhardt J. Hurwood

This charming little volume is from Scholastic, and published in 1971. One can't help but wonder if this was one of those things bought in the book fairs they held in elementary-school cafeterias. It's a charmingly lurid collection of brief tales, all bite-sized and good bedtime reading for those who enjoy a slight shudder.

The stories are quite a jumble. At least one is a written-up version of a common urban legend, of a priest who is summoned by a mysterious woman who directs him to a certain address to administer last rites. He arrives at the address, only to find nobody ill. He identifies a picture on the wall as the woman who summoned him; as it turns out, it's the long-dead mother of the master of the house, a dissolute soul who suddenly converts and confesses his sins....just in time to die the next day.

Others are recountings of famous hauntings, like the screaming skull of Burton Agnes Hall, or a haunting of Berry Pomeroy, and the very, very familiar story of the vampire of Croglin Grange. One, a story of the ghost of a werewolf, seems lifted entirely from the work of Elliott O'Donnell. And quite a few seem invented from whole cloth, like "The Glowing Maggot of Doom" or "The Old Man in Yellow" or "A Georgia House of Horror." All the stories are purportedly true but there's no references and in some cases there's little to no identifying information available, so it's impossible to look it up. My colleague Jim Moon at the Hypnogoria website tried to look up the source of "The Glowing Maggot of Doom" and couldn't find anything. I remember looking into that story myself, as it was reprinted in Marvin Kaye's marvelous anthology Ghosts, and I couldn't locate anything about a maggot haunting, although it does come across as a distant cousin to E. F. Benson's short story "Caterpillars." Mr. Moon reads from the book in his podcast Hypnobobs; go give it a listen. He says a few more things about it that I agree with very much, and find it pointless to repeat.

Interestingly, the editions we have have differences. His is illustrated; mine is not. However, based on his readings in the podcast, his edition seems somewhat bowdlerized; mine does not. In his reading of "Glowing Maggot", there's a mention of someone dying "after being taken ill," but in my copy of the book, it says they died "after being seized with a fit of vomiting."

Bernhardt Hurwood seems to have been a hack writer who did a lot of these books; I now have a small stack of 'em to delve into, found in my explorations of local used book stores. Looking him up online, he also seems to have written quite a few books on sex as well. Quite a split personality there; kid's occultism on one hand, sex and pornography on the other. Probably not all that unusual for jobbing writers.

There are copies available online for next to nothing, and keep your eyes open for used copies. This is enjoyable, if featherweight, entertainment, good for reading in bed on a windy night.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Phantom Tango for July

Feeling raffish and naughty, we're off to that cabaret in town where the music is quirky and the atmosphere conducive to diablerie.

We've been there enough times that we're greeted at the door and shown our favorite table. Bottles of ice-cold cava and an array of light refreshments are brought to the table: moules mariniere, olives, gravlax, cheeses, cups of delicate consomme, chartucerie, and salads, followed by fruits and sherbets. It's a grand evening together, all in our best bohemian finery, Viola in a vintage gown, May and James both in tuxedos, Ramsey opting for a smoking jacket, and Laura in a fetching ensemble she made herself. You're in something classy and fun yourself. We're the envy of the club, with other patrons casting glances our way as if they wished they were at our table.

And then, the band comes on, and the music starts.

Couples take to the floor; tangos ensue. You dance with James, and with May. Cava flows. We make friends with some of the other patrons.

We'll be late for work tomorrow, that's for sure. When it's all over, you're reluctant to even glance at your watch, and are wondering about calling in sick....

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Collected Connoisseur, by Mark Valentine and John Howard

Another set of the adventures of a supernatural sleuth! Only in this case he's quiet modern...and very different from the usual pulpiness. These stories are obviously influenced by visionary authors like Machen and by the Decadents, making quite my cup of tea.

The Connoisseur (his name is never given) is a collector of antiquities and objets d'art. He has an inheritance, actually works ("regular, if uncongenial, administrative work"), and lives modestly in a cathedral town. Every story revolves around some antique or piece of art, and there's a lot of 'em.

Among the strange objects involved in these stories...

  • Pottery made with clay from a sacred well
  • A rare book of poetry dedicated to a ghost
  • A strange silver sphere
  • A rocking horse
  • A surreal charcoal sketch
  • Iron finials on old buildings
  • Rare stamps
  • A weathervane
  • An ebony cane
Some stories also involve unusual architecture, performance art, music, and even a trip on an old ferry. The stories range from mere hauntings and possessions to spectral loves and revivifications of ancient gods to an attempt to bring on a Biblical holocaust. There's also a manuscript of a polar expedition that has weird encounters. And in a couple of the stories the Connoisseur is called on to investigate a weird happening.

There's some great writing here, too. The prose is artistic, sometimes surreal and dreamlike, and while there's a moment or two when it overwhelms the story, it doesn't take over and the plots are still allowed to shine through when it matters. The time period is vague, and sometimes the characters seem like they're from the 30s or 40s, but there's also references that make it clear these stories are set in the modern world, only without much (if any) mention of things like cell phones and computers.

And the menaces aren't always cut-and-dried examples of the supernatural menagerie. Some are ambiguous, like a ghost that might also be a bit of time slippage. There's also some cults and witchcraft and sorcery. Sometimes it's quite mystical, and there's hints of a hidden world just out of site that may not be quite evil or good, but with an agenda of its own that we may be swept up in...or trampled under. It's like the realization we sometimes have that we're not the center of the universe, and that our gods may not be good or evil, but have their own purposes and may even be indifferent to us.

The Collected Connoisseur is available in physical format, at some pretty outrageous prices, but Tartarus Press has made available a very reasonably-priced electronic edition. I highly recommend this!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Sultry June Night at the Movies!

The weather has been steamy and uncomfortable, and we're wishing it would just simply rain and relieve the humidity, although that's also just likely to make it even worse.

We enjoy a light dinner at the old restaurant, winding up with some sherbet that keeps us cool as we head up the street to the old cinema were we go to enjoy tonight's special showing. We give our tickets to the usher with the strange tattoos, get cold drinks from the goth girl at the refreshment counter, and then relax in the air-conditioned auditorium for the show...

First up is a frothy bit of fun from Segundo de Chomon, 1909's "A Trip to Jupiter".

And the feature is the 1932 weird Western, "Tombstone Canyon".

After the show, we slowly walk in the sultry air, up to the cafe for a libation, wishing for rain all the way...

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Seabury Grandin Quinn (1889-1969) was a Washington DC-based lawyer, journalist, and pulp magazine author, who for many years was THE most popular author of the venerable magazine "Weird Tales." He was best known for his series centered on occult detective Jules de Grandin (yes, taken from his own middle name), a French doctor and former soldier who's very obviously based on Hercule Poirot.

The ironic thing is that the de Grandin stories, while STILL being what he's best known for, are actually considered by modern critics of the weird to be his weakest work. Every so often an anthology comes out of his nonseries work, an a "complete" de Grandin collection is available from a small press for quite a high sum. (Someday...) But while some of his other work is held in quite high esteem for pulp work, the de Grandin stories are occasionally plagued with poor characterization (sometimes resorting to stereotypes) and weak plot resolution. I have to admit...these accusations are justified. But even with their flaws, I find them enjoyable.

A few years ago I managed to nab a five-volume set of the de Grandin works that was published by Popular Library in 1976-77, and I'll be reviewing what's in those particular volumes. The stories in this volume were published from 1925 to 1927, and have occasional references to Prohibition and other issues of the day, but also frequently reflect the class snobbery and casual racism common then.

"Terror on the Links" was the introduction to de Grandin and his Watson, Dr. Trowbridge, a family doctor in Harrisonburg, NJ, which serves as Quinn's Sunnydale, a focus of so much supernatural malfeasance that you wonder why anyone lives there. At any rate, there's a murder and an attack on a golf course of the local country club, right after a gala dance. It all ends up as a tale of revenge, mad science, and a gorilla, and while not very logical, and weakly resolved, it is amusingly exotic in a forgotten-old-horror movie way, back in the days when gorillas were a staple of mad-scientist movies.

"The Tenants of Broussac" has Dr. Trowbridge on vacation in France, and surprise! He runs into de Grandin at random. And then they're off to an old castle where the tenants are suffering from an odd malaise. A supernatural beast, the result of a medieval curse, is the culprit, and the resolution is somewhat hasty and verging on deus ex machina, which de Grandin just happening to know exactly what to do and where to get the tools he needs.

"The Isle of Missing Ships" is different for being more of a weird-adventure story rather than horror. Trowbridge and de Grandin are crossing the Pacific on a liner which is seized by pirates in the south seas, and taken to an island ruled by a deranged cannibal pirate chief. This story has its annoyances; Trowbridge is sometimes jaw-droppingly stupid, and Quinn has him being oblivious in situations reeking of danger. But what's fascinating is reading this when you've read Ian Fleming's "Dr. No." Both have a villain who's a half-breed; Quinn's is the son of an upper-crust British missionary and a native girl, and Fleming's is the son of a German missionary and a Chinese girl, and both are motivated by hatred of their fathers. And both have underground dining rooms with vast glass walls that give an undersea vista. Both villains have a pet giant squid. It gives me a strong, strong suspicion that Fleming read this story and included it (and Sax Rohmer's "Island of Fu Manchu") in his inspirations for "Dr. No."

"The Dead Hand" is a short tale about a series of robberies committed by a disembodied phantom hand. While a second act of it seems to be missing, it's got a better resolution than some others. It's flawed by de Grandin just happening to KNOW where to look for the clue he needs, and with a rewrite featuring more detective work it would have been a superior story. (It makes one wonder if such a section existed but was chopped to make the story fit the magazine....) This is also notable for establishing that de Grandin has moved in with Trowbridge and is living full-time in Harrisonburg. No reason is given. Are he and Trowbridge lovers? Did he suddenly decide that New Jersey was better than France? Is he part of a new occult police force in the U.S.? It's up to the reader's imagination.

"The Man Who Cast No Shadow" is a vampire tale, obviously, and a somewhat weak and unfocused one. De Grandin and Trowbridge encounter a mysterious Count Czerny at a party, who has an eerie power over young women. Trowbridge later sees Czerny in Manhattan but looking older. A young man is obviously a victim of a vampire attack, and it seems clear there's another vampire at work. That vampire is taken care of, then the Count's true story is revealed. It's a muddled story, with a secondary vampire at work, seemingly haven been freed by the primary vampire with no other purpose in mind than to cause trouble. The count's final revelation is actually a bit interesting. It's almost as if two separate stories were jammed into one, and it would have been better had they been separated and developed into independent stories.

"The Blood-Flower" is an improvement and Quinn seemed to be developing as a writer. This tale of lycanthropy with hints of incest has decent structure and pacing, and ends with de Grandin resorting to ritual magic to dispel the curse, as well as regular bullets. Yes, the hero mocks the use of silver bullets. "Parbleu, had the good St. George possessed a military rifle of today, he might have slain the dragon without approaching nearer a mile! When I did shoot that wolfman, my friend, I had something more powerful than superstition in my hand. Morbleu, but I did shoot a hole in him large enough for him to have walked through!"

"The Curse of Everard Maundy" is the best-structured story of the collection. A rash of inexplicable suicides strikes Harrisonville and the surrounding area. After actually doing some detective work, it turns out that all victims have attended the revival meetings of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher named Everard Maundy. They attend a meeting, deal with the resulting experiences, and then are on the track of the cause. It's well-done, with the structure and pace all well put together, and with only one dangling plot thread when it's over...what becomes of Rev. Maundy?

Even with its flaws, I enjoyed this a lot, both on its own and as part of the weird-detective genre. It's out of print but can be found here and there; I bought the set on Ebay.

I'll be reviewing the rest in between other works. Gotta pace myself, y'know.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

June Brings a Song from the Phantom Channel

It's a warm, steamy night, and you're taking refuge in the basement rec room, or up in your bedroom with a fan and the AC both on. Maybe you're alone; maybe you have some friends around. You're flicking through the channels on an old TV set you picked up at a yard sale a while back; it's not hooked up to the cable, as there's no way to hook it up, but every so often you find something interesting.

What's this? Channel 67, which has always been static before, now has something on! After a few commercials for businesses you've never heard of, suddenly a movie starts, with this amazing theme song.

The Green Slime (1966) is a unique hybrid: it's got American money, Italian producers, and made in Japan by a Japanese director. It's an unofficial continuation of the "Gamma One" series that began with the cheesy Italian sci-fi film Wild, Wild Planet. It's got myriad flaws but at least it's not dull, and while the song has dreadful lyrics, it still rocks.

You never quite figure out where channel 67 is coming from, but it does show fun old movies and reruns of old shows, so you tune by every so often...one of these days you'll figure out how to find that bookstore that advertises on there...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

May Miscellany

  • I spent the weekend at Balticon, a yearly sci-fi convention here in the Baltimore area, and I think I'm going to be going regularly from now on. I actually don't participate much in the sci-fi fandom, but Balticon has an unusually strong science program, and that's where I spent the whole time when I wasn't shopping in the dealer's room. (I came away with a stack of books and a nifty turned-wood fountain pen.) It was a nice time and I got to spend time with various friends.
  • Summer has descended on Baltimore! The heat and humidity today were dreadful, but it's the beginning of our Sinister Summer and new adventures ahead. What are your plans for the summer?
  • I just finished a rather slight mystery novel from the library. Death and the Courtesan, by Pamela Christie, is an OK read but not much more. It recounts the adventures of Arabella Beaumont, London courtesan of 1811, who is accused of murdering a fellow courtesan and must uncover the murderer in order to save her own neck. The historic milieu is well-researched and Arabella is an amiable person to spend time with, but the plot is rather thin and hastily solved by a leap of logic. I may or may not read the sequel.
    Saucy thing!