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...