Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A December Night at the Movies

We take refuge from an unseasonably warm and uncomfortable December night in our favorite restaurant, with our usual lamentations of shopping and holiday bustle and the dreadful weather. The only thing worse than a bitter cold and snowy December is one that's unusually warm and springlike, oppressively humid, and carrying with it the threat of a blazingly, hellishly hot summer.

After our meal, we head up the street to that romantically rundown movie house we go to so much. Tonight's show is a lovely old black & white mystery movie MURDER ON THE CAMPUS.



The thrills and chills of the old movie's twists and turns are a potent antidote to the cynical, cookie-cutter, trying-too-hard-to-be-heartwarming holiday fare we can't escape from.

Our spirits raised, we head up the street for a final drink before parting for the night...and to exchange some small presents, just for fun....

Thursday, December 10, 2015

THE DEVIL'S BRIDE by Seabury Quinn

Another adventure for occult detective Jules de Grandin!

"The Devil's Bride" is the only full-length novel to feature de Grandin, and is surprising in that it contains almost no supernatural content. Instead, de Grandin fights an evil cult with aims more political and earthly than otherworldly.

Pretty young Alice Hume is celebrating her upcoming marriage, but her happiness is only slightly marred by strange messages coming from a ouija board she and friends are toying with, giving messages saying "ALICE COME HOME." Madcap Alice also plans to marry while wearing a strange family heirloom, "the luck of the Humes," a strange jeweled girdle that was worn by Hume women for generations to marry. Alice shows off the girdle to her friends (including de Grandin and his Watson, Dr. Trowbridge), and recounts a story of an odd man who tried to buy it a few days before. And before the first chapter is over, Alice is kidnapped.

De Grandin reveals that he's seen girdles similar to that before; they're made of human skin and used by "Yezidee" cultists when choosing a woman for human sacrifice. And the strange cultists seem to use an arcane powder that causes paralysis and memory loss to cover their tracks.

And we're off on an adventure with de Grandin and Trowbridge battling cultists, infiltrating ceremonies, rescuing Alice, losing her again, and finally a climax in the jungles of Africa.

It's good, rip-roaring read, but the racial politics and views are sometimes appalling. Quinn depicts his "Yezidees" as a group of evil Satanists, but the real-life Yazidi people are a religious/ethic group related to the Kurds, with unique religious beliefs derived from Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian mythology, who are monotheistic but honor a "peacock angel" named Melek Taus who can be a bit ambivalent and ambiguous, and this has led to other groups, like Muslim fundamentalists and obtuse modern Christians, to assume the Yazidis are devil worshipers. Yazidis are quickly fleeing their homes in the Middle East and Central Asia for more tolerant refuges in the West; they are targets of present-day menaces like ISIL.

De Grandin also reveals that many of these Satanic schemers are being financed by Russia; obviously, since the commies are atheists, they want to undermine religion worldwide, and de Grandin cannily wonders if Christianity's more extreme elements are also being manipulated by the Reds....which would actually make sense, similar to those who suspect Donald Trump is really a liberal ringer trying to make Republicans look bad and guarantee a Democratic president.

De Grandin (and implicitly Quinn) do seem to equate battling Satanism with defending the American way, which reminds me of a book I read long ago, "Slayer of Souls" by Robert W. Chambers, which featured Secret Service agents who were more concerned with defending Christianity than they were with protecting the United States....or considered them equivalent. An early example of American exceptionalism?

One element of the story was a bit touching, of a woman who works for the cult, but eventually flees them after refusing to participate in an infant sacrifice. She is bumped off by the cult, but her history is later revealed by her brother, a tale of abuse and rejection by an intolerant religious maniac parent driving her to the arms of the Satanic cult. It's a nice bit of balance, with Quinn (through de Grandin) pointing out the destructiveness of Christian fundamentalism.

But, all in all, "The Devil's Bride" is a decent pulp read, despite some troubling political stances and sad ethnic ignorance...which was unfortunately common back in the days it was written. It's got overtones of Sax Rohmer here and there (Fu Manchu's cult honored a white peacock), but also with some unique Quinn flair. If you can find it, it's entertaining, but steel yourself for some outdated viewpoints.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

December at the Phantom Concert Hall

Early in December, we gather together after the Thanksgiving holiday for an evening out. We're already tired of Christmas music and are leaping at an opportunity to hear something other than the billionth rendition of "Jingle Bells."

So, at that rehabbed concert hall in the old part of town, we're gathered for an orchestral performance...and up is James Bernard's "Vampire Rhapsody"!



After the show, we walk in the cold winter air to that pleasant Spanish restaurant up the street, hoping none of us fall victim to any vampiric villains along the way....

Sorry I've been quiet for so long; Thanksgiving was a big deal and work was taking a lot out of me. I'm back and am rarin' to go!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

No Zombies Allowed

I'm tired of zombies.

There. I said it. I'm tired of them. The whole apocalyptic, walking dead, zombie plague thing? I'm done. Don't bother me. I'm sick of it.

I've seen some of "The Walking Dead" and found it a colossal bore. I've watched some modern zombie films (most recently "The Dead," a zombie film set in central Africa), and they just don't engage me at all.

I mean, what ARE they, anyway? Are they normal humans with a disease? Are they actually animated corpses? So many films show them as not bleeding, basically being dead, all that...but why do they never decompose? Why aren't they ridden with maggots? How do their muscles continue to work without any blood circulation to bring oxygen? Why do animals never attack them? Why do they never dehydrate or desiccate?

OK, sure, I'm told that in "The Walking Dead" they claim the zombies have a toxin in their bodies that destroys the decomp bacteria....but any toxin powerful enough to do that will destroy human cells and cause their bodies to fall apart. But otherwise, zombie movies and TV shows never really address all the scientific aspects of how a zombie apocalypse would fail quickly. As I've seen it said, if a real zombie apocalypse happened, we'd just have to hunker down for a few weeks and let nature take care of the zombies for us, and then just go out and rake up the remains.

But really, I'm tired of how bleak it all is. Horror films used to have a contract with the audience: we'll give you something terrifying, but at the end everything will just about be set back to rights. Zombie films? Fuck that....we'll give you something terrifying, and by the end everyone will be dead and humanity doomed. How delightful.

I'll make exceptions for things like, well, voodoo cults in Cornish tin mines, or Bela Lugosi in a castle in Haiti, or the like, but unless someone actually manages to do something very daring and different with the zombie genre, I'm done with it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Belated Musical Interlude for November

Sorry, folks, got caught up in a post-Halloween scramble, including a brief illness, drama at work, and I just started physical therapy for shoulder pain that may be from a swollen disc. Ow.

So I'm not much for the usual scenarios I do, but I want to share this delightful animated short I just discovered...



Hope everyone is having a good month so far!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween!

I hope everyone is having a great Halloween...and if it's less than great, I hope you're making the best of it and that next year's will be better.

Have a crazy night! I'll catch you on the other side....

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

ALRAUNE, by Hanns Heinz Ewers

Every so often, I'll read something that's thoroughly fascinating, but yet leaves me somewhat squicked out. This is one of those works.

Alraune, by Hanns Heinz Ewers and published in 1911, is the tale of scientist Jakob ten Brinken and his friend Frank Braun, who are fascinated by heredity, and to see it in action, they set about experimenting with artificial insemination, impregnating a slatternly prostitute with the semen of a depraved murderer. A daughter is born, Alraune, a beautiful child who is taken in by an upper-middle-class family.

Alraune, however, lacks scruple. Beautiful and perfectly mannered, she brings destruction to everyone around her. Every chapter is an episode in which some foolish soul is drawn to her as a month unto a flame, and ends up self-destructing in one way or another. And it's not just men; women also fall head-over-heels for the cruel Alraune, and are destroyed by her.

Finally, close to the end, Alraune genuinely falls in love and has a romantic idyll with her one of her creators, Frank Braun. Alraune belatedly develops a guilty conscience, begins sleepwalking....and ultimately meets her end.

It's hard to approach this book objectively. A plot revolving around heredity and eugenics, from a Germany that was only a couple of decades from being taken over by the Nazi party, can make even the most hardened reader cringe. It's important to remember that this was a time when the topics of heredity and eugenics were big in the public consciousness even here in the U.S. and in other countries. In 1912, a year after this book was published in Germany, American psychologist Henry H. Goddard published his infamous study, The Kallikak Family, which made claims that "feeblemindedness", mental disabilities, and criminal tendencies were hereditary. Of course, even Goddard's contemporaries pointed out that he overlooked the role of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies in the developments of the "feebleminded" Kallikaks. In our present days of being over-nourished, we forget that vitamin deficiencies were a real problem. Everyone consumes iodized salt these days, and we've forgotten that iodine deficiency doesn't just cause goiter, but can also lead to intellectual disabilities. The Kallikaks of Goddard's study were also a poor backwoods family; naturally issues such as isolation, inbreeding, and poverty should have been in play. Modern critics have also pointed out the possibility of widespread alcoholism in the family and chronic fetal alcohol syndrome from one generation to the next. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book The Mismeasure of Man, makes a case for Goddard's data being fudged and photos of the backwoods Kallikaks being doctored.

This was also not far from the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision in the U.S. Supreme Court, that ruled that state laws requiring compulsory sterilization of the "unfit" and intellectually disabled did not violate the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment. Forced sterilization continued in the U.S. but declined after WWII; even so, some states still have eugenics-related compulsory sterilization laws on the books, but they are not enforces, and as late as 1981 forcible sterilizations occurred in Oregon.

Even some of Edgar Rice Burroughs' works seemed to endorse eugenics; his posthumously-published novella "Pirate Blood" has a modern descendant of Jean Laffite suddenly drawn into piracy because of heredity.

So you can see that it wasn't unique to Germany. Still, it's disquieting today to read. Even now we're struggling with the idea that maybe some things ARE hereditary, such as a tendency to alcoholism, while at the same time decrying any sort of forced eugenics as immoral.

There's also the woman-as-destroyer trope. Again, this was nothing new, in Germany or anywhere else. German dramatist Frank Wedekind gave us the play "Earth Spirit" in 1894, and its sequel "Pandora's Box" in 1904, that tracked the trail of destruction left by Lulu, a seductress who loves and ruins everyone she meets until meeting her destruction. These were adapted as the 1929 silent film Pandora's Box, starring Louise Brooks, and Alban Berg's 1935 opera Lulu.

Of course, we see this in American media; just look at the 1933 film Baby Face, in which Barbara Stanwyck fucks her way to the top and wreaks havoc on the way. And reading this, I was also reminded of the notorious 1969 trash novel Naked Came the Stranger, in which a woman retaliates against a cheating husband by catting around with every man in her neighborhood, and leaving wrecked relationships, ruined marriages, and even a corpse or two in her wake. (Yes, I read it a few years ago, mainly for a laugh.)

The question of misogyny raises its head when these works are discussed, and I'd say that depending on where you're coming from, Alraune and Lulu and other works can be seen as misogynist. Women are destructive, they bring ruin to all around them. Conversely, some have claimed works like these (especially Lulu) to be proto-feminist, in showing a woman with agency who owns her own sexuality and doesn't need to subsume herself to a man in order to make her way in the world...and I would say that these views are also legitimate.

It can be hard to say what is really misogynistic or feminist sometimes. You may know of (or remember) the series of trash films about a lady Nazi named Ilsa, flicks like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs. They were made to be exploitation, and for years they were, but then they were embraced by a younger generation of women who saw them as empowering. Star Dyanne Thorne has expressed her amazement at the women who would come to her at conventions to praise those films. I personally have seen similar at burlesque shows; once "girlie shows" were for drooling old men who wanted to ogle scantily clad women, but now I've found that burlesque is empowering for women who see it as a way of owning their sexuality and declaring the beauty of their bodies just as they are. As I've said before, we shouldn't be too quick to judge; the exploitation of one generation can be the empowerment of the next.

So...back to Alraune....

Some have also voiced revulsion at how Ewers became involved in the Nazi party (most notably Jess Nevins) but it's worth pointing out that Ewers got involved mostly because of his own nationalism and Neitzschean philosophies. Ewers doesn't seem to have been an anti-Semite (his books feature positive Jewish characters who are patriotic Germans) and he was, to use a modern term, "heteroflexible" which eventually put him at odds with the Nazis. In 1934, most of his works were banned by the Third Reich and his assets seized; he died of TB that year.

Is Alraune a Nazi work? Not really, I'd say. The use of eugenics as a story element can be uncomfortable and problematic to modern readers, but it's no worse than other works of the period. It was a time when even the "good guys" of the world took eugenics seriously. There was still a lot we didn't understand. It's also got a lot of decadence and depravity simmering under the surface, the sort of thing the Nazis would have disapproved of.

It is a misogynist work? That can be up to interpretation. It can be a male fevered fantasy of destructive female sexuality....or can be an exploration of how a woman can own her sexuality and defy the repressive and hypocritical society around her. And as destructive as she is to men, ultimately men are powerless against her, and it takes another woman's actions to bring about her end.

Interestingly, Alraune is the second book in a trilogy about Frank Braun; I think the first is now available in a new translation, and the third may be in the works. Alraune is available in a new translation as an e-book; the introductory essay by the translator is most entertaining.

Am I sorry I read it? No, not at all. And while I'm not its biggest fan, at the same time there was something about it that I found compelling, even if it was just as a window into another time and another mindset that may not be as far away from ours as we think. And I'd say there's a strong possibility I'll look into any other works that are currently available. Yes, there were times I squirmed mentally, but life is shallow if we never take a good hard look at the things that disquiet us.

Alraune has been filmed several times, including a famous 1928 version with Brigitte Helm of Metropolis, and Paul Wegener, director of The Golem.  The latest was in 1952, with Hildegarde Knef and Erich von Stroheim. Its influence can be seen in other works....Species, anyone?

Maybe not required reading, but good if you want to confront some uncomfortable questions.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Cold October Night at the Movies!

An autumn cold snap has descended on the city, and when we meet for dinner tonight we're dressed more for winter than fall. The unaccustomed chill has us all wondering what the winter will bring, and was that snow we saw last night?

Dinner at least relaxes us, and when we make our way up the street to the cinema, we're in a happy mood.

Tonight's movie is the 1934 chiller The Ghost Walks!


Nothing like an old-dark-house thriller, eh? So appropriate for the season...

We amble down the street afterward, ready for a drink or two, and planning things to do for the spooky season....

Monday, October 12, 2015

THE AMULET by Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell (1950-1999) was one of those great authors of the glossy paperback horror novels that were all over the place in the late 70s and early 80s. Browse your local used-book emporium and you may find a few of his works. Get them.

McDowell's been out of print for a while but is slowly being rediscovered and re-evaluated. His horrors could be schlocky but there was also a wry humor behind them. He was also a screenwriter, having wrote BEETLEJUICE and worked on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and taught screenwriting. He was praised by Stephen King and other notables.

The Amulet is his first published book. The first few chapters are an overview of its setting, the impoverished town of Pine Cone, AL. We're also introduced early on to Dean Howell, a character who certainly doesn't DO much, but so much of the novel revolves around him. It's 1965, and he's been drafted to serve in Vietnam, and is undergoing basic training at a nearby military base when the gun he's training with explodes in his face and maims him horribly.

He's brought home to his wife, Sarah, and his mother, Jo. Sarah is a much put-upon woman; although she never says so herself, it's more than obvious that her marriage was a mistake. Dean was obviously not mature enough to be a good husband, and was very likely to be physically abusive. His mother is bitter and hateful, and also lazy and arrogant. Sarah herself has a job on the line at the biggest employer in town, a munitions plant....the same plant that made the gun that exploded in Dean's hands.

Dean is brought home, a bandaged, vegetative mess; they have no idea if he'll ever be functional again. Jo is of course obsessive about him, insisting that he communicates with her. Sarah isn't so sure, and her dissatisfaction with her lot becomes more and more evident with each passing page.

A junior executive from the plant, who knew Dean long ago, comes to pay a visit, and as he leaves, Jo presses a strange necklace on him "as a present for the wife." He takes it home and gives it to his wife....whose behavior changes. She serves the family a poisoned dinner, then sets the house on fire and sits calmly in her bedroom as it burns down around her.

And that's just the start.

The amulet manages to go from person to person in the town, seemingly turning up of its own will, and every person who wears it becomes possessed by a violent, homicidal rage at the people who annoy them in small ways. And really, it's a violent, bloody dissection of relations between the sexes, the classes, and the races in small-town Alabama. Nobody is spared.

Sarah suspects something is up, based on Jo's behavior, even resorting to a ouija board with her neighbor. And it all comes to a head when the amulet finally makes it to the munitions plant...

It's good gory fun, to be sure, although I was annoyed by one thing: we never learn where the amulet came from or how Jo got it or was spared its curse. There's hints that Jo was responsible for at least one murder in the past, but that's all it was. I know, it's minor, but I wanted more background.

Still, the sociological undercurrents make this worth reading, and it is very entertainingly written. McDowell's tone when describing the town walks a delicate line between being nostalgic on one side and mocking and contemptuous on the other. That's quite an achievement.

You may be lucky to happen upon an old copy somewhere, but if not, it's available as an ebook from Valancourt, with a new forward by Poppy Z. Brite.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

October at the Phantom Recital Hall

It's a cool October night, with the heat having broken and a warm rainy spell behind us. We're out for an evening of culture, enjoying ourselves in that restored old concert hall we enjoy going to.

Tonight, it's a recital of piano and violin, and ends with this delightful piece, William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost Rag."



This is an old favorite of mine, one of the composer's three "Ghost Rags," jazzy pieces that originated in his studio (which overlooked a cemetery) and came soon after his father's death (or so I hear). I've always loved how it's light and lilting and yet there's something just slightly otherworldly about it. It's normally a solo piano piece; this violin-and-piano rendition is unusual and a nice variation. It's hard to not imagine a dancing ghost when listening to this....





Monday, September 28, 2015

BRYANT & MAY AND THE BLEEDING HEART by Christopher Fowler

Catching up with Christopher Fowler is always a delight. His books never fail to entertain.

Two teenagers go to a London park, ostensibly to stargaze. The park is really a long-disused cemetery, still kept up, and while on a romantic stroll, they encounter what appears to be a case of the living dead: a seeming corpse suddenly standing and moving toward them before collapsing.

Of course, the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called on the case. There's more to this than they anticipate; the corpse died recently, a seeming suicide, but there's something about the shady people he was working for that could have led to his desperate act. And now his wife is stalking her husband's former associates, and the teenaged son grows more surly.

It gets more complicated as one of the teenage witnesses is murdered, and more corpses pile up. There's another mystery going on, of how the famous ravens from the Tower of London are suddenly missing. Superstition has it that this is a sign of the collapse of the nation; is it really? And is that Crowleyesque Satanist who showed up in the last book somehow responsible?

This kicks off another investigation through modern London, which is every bit as bizarre and gothick as anything from a Hammer film. The story involves some strange forgotten corners of the city, a group of resurrectionists, and a jolly undertaker, before coming to a rational and satisfying end.

This is fabulous fun, a great old-fashioned tale with enough modernism to keep it from being out-of-date. There's some good exploration of Bryant and May's psyches and we delve into some of the other PCU members as well. The teenage daughter of one member gets pulled into some detective work as well....PCU, The Next Generation?

Any Bryant & May is a great read, and this especially is great reading as autumn gathers around us. As always, it's Required Reading.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Dreary September Night at the Movies!

Autumn chill is finally gathering around us, and it's a dank, drizzly night as we gather at our usual restaurant for a meal and conversation before the show. Many discuss plans for October...after all, it's always a busy month for us! There's always parties and shows and movies and whatnot, and September is a time to gather one's energy for the flurry of October and the frenzy of Halloween, and then the long slide into the winter holiday season...

Our bill paid, and a bit of the flavor of the pear crisp we all had for dessert lingering pleasantly in our memories, we head up the street to that old movie theater we also go to. The guy taking the tickets has a new piercing, it seems, and is always glad to see us. Maybe. But we still have a good time.

Tonight's show is the notorious 1934 trash classic MANIAC!



This is, without a doubt, the sleaziest film I've featured on this blog. Producer/director Dwain Esper was a schlockmeister and huckster, who loved to make sleazy shock films and cloak them in a veil of feigned morality. This flick pretends to have class credentials, pretending to be based on three different Poe stories ("The Black Cat," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and "The Tell-Tale Heart") but really it just does whatever it can to shock. Plot threads are left dangling, bizarre things happen...you won't believe your eyes.

The movie over, we stagger out, laughing in disbelief at what we've seen, and make our way up the street to that little cafe to dissect what we've seen and argue over its meaning....if it ever had any to begin with...

Monday, September 14, 2015

DEATH IN THE GARDEN by Elizabeth Ironside

A rawther genteel book cover belies a novel full of vintage suspicions and modern-day drama.

In 1925, beautiful Diana Pollexfen is celebrating her 30th birthday with a group of bohemian friends at the country house owned by her wealthy husband George, who himself is a bit of a stick in the mud who disapproves of her friends and of his wife's attempts at independence. Diana is actually a very talented photographer, and her friends number some writers and artists.

In the midst of all the Bright Young Things having fun, there's tension in the air as George wants Diana to give up photography once and for all and be a good submissive wife. But at the end of the long weekend party, George is found dead in the garden, poisoned by Diana's photography chemicals.

Fast-forward 60 years. Helena Fox is turning 30 with little fanfare. A lawyer in a London firm, she's having an unsatisfying affair with a married MP and desires a break from it all. She's thinking of going to visit her great-aunt Fox, only to learn that her beloved great-aunt, who had practically raised her, has died. Helena goes to her house in Rutland and starts to attend to the formalities...and makes some surprising discoveries. Her great-aunt had once been a famous photographer (under another name) and had been acquitted of murder! Examining her great-aunt's diaries, she gets a sense of guilt but is unable to get any resolution to the problem. So, she starts off trying to piece together the remaining bits to see if she can find out the real story....

So what we have is a story taking place in two timelines, with varying points of view involved. It's a good story overall, although I was a bit disappointed in the ending. However, it's got some ponderings about women's roles in society in the different eras, and how they can be shockingly similar. The 20's milieu is beautifully described and laid out before us, frankly presented although not entirely glamorized. (I mean, come on, any representation of the wealthy Bright Young Things of the Roaring 20s is going to be somewhat glamorous.) The language is lovely and the plot moves along from one Rashomon-style story to another, until the Truth is revealed.

A very pleasant read, and worth checking out.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Kicking off September in the Phantom Cabaret

It's Labor Day weekend, and we're spending some of it at a nice little cabaret in town. We're having some drinks, talking, and enjoying an evening of Kurt Weill tunes. And then one very appropriate song is played...



OK, so Lou Reed isn't quite Lotte Lenya, but his version is quite fun, and a nice change from the usual renditions of the old familiar tune.

Autumn is coming, folks...lots of fun stuff on the way....

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NOT EXACTLY GHOSTS by Sir Andrew Caldecott

"Well, if they're not exactly ghosts, what are they?" I hear you say. To which I reply, "Shut up, smartass, and let me continue with the review."

This is actually a collection of two book, both short story collections, Not Exactly Ghosts and Fires Burn Blue. Andrew Caldecott (1884-1951), the author, was a British colonial administrator who served first in Malaya, then was briefly the governor of Hong Kong, then the governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He retired from service in 1944 and returned to England, living there until his death.

I have to point all this out because his colonial experience comes into play in the stories. About a third of the stories in this book are set in the fictional country of Kongea, which seems to function as an amalgam of Malaya and Ceylon, with dashes of Hong Kong.

His stories are ghost stories, but are rather laid-back in their horrors. They're disquieting rather than terrifying, and sometimes the horrors are mundane in nature. Many have bad people meeting poetic justice by some supernatural agency; a notable one is "Sonata in D Minor," which has an interesting plot device: a recording of a (real) classical piece performed by a duo who hated each other with an insane fury, and which ended in murder. Listening to that particular recording drives men mad....and they do horrible things....

"The Pump in Thorp's Spinney" is one of the more mundane tales, of a curious boy encountering what he thinks is a ghost when he investigates an abandoned pump on an isolated farm. It's only years later that he learns the macabre truth.

His Kongean tales are the most interesting. "Light in the Darkness", the first, has an overzealous missionary going to a sacred cave and trying to discredit local beliefs by showing that a magic glow is merely a luminous mold....only to fall victim to a weird curse. It's got a "respect-the-locals" undercurrent, but also shows a sort of more progressive Kipling element by depicting Westerners in a foreign land, basically occupying it, and running afoul of a culture and traditions that they don't understand. And through them all he seems to be asking...."Do we really belong here?"

It's interesting, seeing someone who came from the colonial, white-man's-burden, to-strive-to-seek-to-find-and-not-to-yield, Victorian/Edwardian mindset seemingly questioning why they're there. Some of his Kongea stories reflect that the "civilization" that Westerners are imposing is merely a veneer that will fall off the minute they relax...and reading between the lines, I got a sense of him feeling, well, maybe we should let it fall off and get the hell out of there. Kongea is seen as a land of weird secrets and mysteries, and Westerners interfere with them at their peril.

Not Exactly Ghosts is not quite Required Reading, and hardly a horror classic, but it does represent an interesting side-road of the macabre, should you come across it in your travels.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

An August Night at the Movies!

August is humid and sweltering as we meet at our favorite restaurant, chatting and catching up on tales of work and back-to-school sales and last-moment vacations and our hopes for a break in the heat and can't autumn come early for a change this year?

Dinner is light summertime fare, and afterwards we're up the street at the old movie house, where the old lady with glasses runs the concessions and the guy with the biceps and tattoos takes our tickets...

Tonight's movie is another Monogram chiller from 1934, The Moonstone, based on the classic novel by Wilkie Collins.



Good old David Manners, who you've seen a million times in classic Universal monster movies, is good in this, and it's interesting to note that the producer and screenwriters were specialists in Westerns, tackling a Gothic mystery for the first time.

The show over, we go back out in the August night...was that a raindrop? Do you hear thunder? Let's go get something cold before the skies open up....

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: Rath Krespel/The Cremona Violin

The latest in my Hoffmann series is "Rath Krespel," sometimes known as "Councillor Krespel," and other times as "The Cremona Violin," first published in 1819.

It's an odd tale, even for Hoffmann. It tells the tale of Krespel, an excellent violin-maker, who is also eccentric...almost to the point of insanity. There's a story told in the tale of how he was building a house, and had the mason build blank stone walls until they reached the height he felt appropriate, then walked around the blank walls until he decided where a door should go, and had them cut a hole in the wall right there. Yeah, that level of eccentric.

Krespel spends his time making violins and acquiring violins made by other great makers which he takes apart to learn their secrets. However, there is a Cremona violin, from an unknown maker, that he is unable to disassemble; instead, he keeps it on the shelf.

A unnamed narrator observes how Krespel disappears for a while, then shows up with a young woman in tow. She turns out to be Antonia, who has a magnificent singing voice. Krespel shelters her and tries to prevent visitors. The narrator takes an interest, because Antonia is so gorgeous, and worms his way into Krespel's house. It goes well until he tries to get Antonia to sing, at which point he is hustled out of the house and told he is no longer welcome.

The narrator leaves town for a few years, and returns to find a funeral going on. Yup, Antonia is dead, and the narrator suspects foul play and confronts Krespel. It turns out Krespel had been married to an opera singer whom he was separated from, although they were fond of another, and who had borne him a daughter, Antonia. Antonia was blessed with her mother's voice, but also had an "organic defect" in her chest that meant that singing could bring about her death. He prevented her marrying a young composer, and kept her at home. Their greatest pleasure was the Cremona violin, which had a sound resembling Antonia's voice, so he played it often. Then one day, after a strange, surreal dream in which he sees and hears Antonia singing and embracing her former fiance, he wakes and rushes to her room, to find her dead.

That's it. No apparitions, no surreal demons, precious little supernatural content except the dream and the sense of a sort of curse hanging over poor Antonia. But this was one of Hoffmann's more popular stories, and there is something rather memorable about it.

There is a sort of air of abusiveness about Krespel's treatment of Antonia; he will not allow her self-determination. She truly desires to sing, and has an amazing talent and ability, but he fears that it will take her from him. The story of many overprotective parents, eh? I suppose that's the key to the story's enduring popularity: the old recurring story of the overbearing parent who can't let go, taken to an extreme.

It also has some interesting psychological insight. Krespel acts oddly, especially in the wake of Antonia's death, but when the narrator wonders about having him put in an asylum or similar, he is told by a friend that Krespel is no crazier than anyone else, but simply acts on the insane thoughts and impulses that people normally do not act on, and is thus more honest about his inmost thoughts than most people. That's food for thought right there: are so-called "crazy" people simple acting on thoughts and impulses that the rest of us repress?

Also, this is notable for being the basis of one of the acts of the opera, "Tales of Hoffmann," and depending on the version you saw, it could be the second or third act. For many years it was performed as the third act, as it was felt to be the most accomplished musically, but in later reconstructions of Offenbach's original plans for the opera (he died before it was complete), it's played as the second act, which actually makes more sense in the character arc that's played out for the Hoffmann character.

Here's her death scene from the opera; the music is actually quite remarkable...



More Hoffmann on the way!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

August in the Phantom Concert Hall

August has arrived, and there's a new program at that old concert hall we've been visiting...and thank heaven, they have a new air conditioning system installed!

The program is fairly standard stuff, but then they pull out a work by modern composer Charles Ives, "The Unanswered Question."



A very nice piece it is, capturing some of the wistfulness of the passing season, with flare-ups of mystery and intrigue.

We go for a late dinner after the concert, wondering what the upcoming month holds for us....

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Another Steamy Night at the Movies!

We just can't seem to catch a break; the heat just keeps going and going. At least we have air conditioning in our favorite restaurant, where over a light meal we gripe about the summer heat, trying to dress appropriately when you're sweltering, and who thought it was a good idea to have that outdoor arts festival in the hottest time of the year anyway?

But after our meal and conversation, we make our way (slowly) up the street to that old movie house we love so much...where the AC has just been done over and is working like a charm.

Tonight's movie is a 1934 classic, Jane Eyre!



This is the first sound version of the classic story, and is regarded as the finest hour for venerable Poverty Row studio Monogram, a specialist in cheaply made but exciting films in the 30s through the early 50s. Often dismissed in their day, Monogram films were later recognized and honored as cult items, and Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram to acknowledge his own debt to them. Monogram has long lain dormant as a subsidiary of Allied Artists International, although now word comes that they're about to be resurrected....

After the movie ends, we stroll up the street....good lord, did the heat get worse after the sun went down? Let's get something cold....

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

THE SUPERNATURAL TALES OF FITZ-JAMES O'BRIEN, VOL 1

In the wild days of 1988, the honorable Jessica Amanda Salmonson edited a two-volume set of the supernatural works of Fitz-James O'Brien, one of the great overlooked American authors of the weird. And she did an amazing job, digging stories that hadn't seen the light of day in nearly a century. Volume 1 is dedicated to "Macabre Tales."

"But...but I know who Fitz-James O'Brien is!" I hear you cry. Sure, he's famous for "The Diamond Lens," a deservedly famous weird tale. Or maybe you know "What Was It?", another notable tale which was also probably the first to deal with invisibility. But really...what beyond that do you know?

Fitz-James O'Brien (1826? - 1862) was born in Ireland to a well-off family, but had a taste for high living that proved ruinous to his inheritance. Little is known of his life before he emigrated to American shores, but it is believed he was well-educated and fairly well-traveled. He came to New York in 1852 nearly broke, and set out to be a writer. He had some success, and was a noted dandy and man-about-town. He was also gay, which many don't talk about, and was a fixture in New York's gay bohemian circles, along with Walt Whitman. He was a scrapper, getting into a number of fights, and was a noted wit. He joined the Union army in the Civil War, was wounded, and died of tetanus in Cumberland, MD, on April 6th, 1862, and is buried in New York.

Now...for the stories!

"The Lost Room" is a great, nightmarish tale of a man who finds his boardinghouse quarters bizarrely altered; Salmonson wonders if it wasn't founded on O'Brien's experiences of moving here and there when he was broke and desperate. "The Child That Loved a Grave" is a short-short about a morbid child that reminds me of Lovecraft in his early poetic attempts.

"The Diamond Lens" is an inarguable classic, and becomes even more interesting in the context of O'Brien's life and his yearning for unattainable perfection. "The Pot of Tulips" is very nicely written, but lacks some of the unique bizzarerie of some of the other tales, in that it's a rather standard ghost story. "The Bohemian" tells a tale of treasure-hunting and mesmerism, still little understood at the time.

"Seeing the World" is a parable of the downsides of the artistic temperament which sees the world a bit TOO clearly. "What Was It?" is a landmark tale of a house haunted by a very tangible, yet invisible presence. "The Wondersmith" is probably the longest story in the collection, a tale in the style of E. T. A. Hoffmann, about a toymaker who plots with a witch to bring his toy soldiers to life with the aid of evil spirits and wreak havoc on New Year's morning. It's got some problematic racial views; the villain is a Gypsy who is motivated by a hatred of Caucasians, blaming whites for the death of his son, who perished of alcoholism.

"A Dead Secret" is reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce, in which a desperately poor young man trades identities with a wealthy man who dies in his presence, only to be pursued by a bizarre conspiracy that will not let him rest. "A Legend of Barlagh Cave" is a sort of faux folktale involving violence and fate in a cave in Ireland. The final tale, "Jubal the Ringer," is a nicely gruesome tale in which a hunchbacked bell-ringer (Victor Hugo, anyone?) takes revenge on a beautiful, heartless woman who spurned him.

This collection is a good read. O'Brien could be a bit of a recycler, borrowing elements from Hoffmann and Hugo, but even then he'll put interesting twists on the material. But when he's original, he's ORIGINAL. And in the best of his tales you get a glimpse of what it was like to be a Bohemian in mid-1800s New York, living in boardinghouses and hanging out in raffish bars and restaurants.

Salmonson's collection is a bit hard to find these days, but it can be bought for fairly reasonable prices. A new collection of 14 tales, published by the University of Delaware Press, is available, with some never-before-published tales, but it costs $95 in hardcover and $65 for the Kindle edition. No thank you. Search out Salmonson's instead. Her commentary on the stories, and her biographical sketch of O'Brien, are excellent.

I'll be reviewing the second volume in the near future, so stay tuned.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Musical Interlude for July

We're at a friend's house by the water, enjoying a potluck cookout, drinks, and a ton of illegal fireworks that are being skillfully handled by some knowledgeable folk. It's the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and it's a great time to relax and get your feet wet.

And guess what! If you want an impromptu concert as the sun sets, they have a piano in the living room and someone's going to play for us...



This is a great piece of musical illustration (it's meant to be a musical evocation of fireworks), from one of my favorite composers. Also, not frequently heard, and it deserves to be.

I hope my American readers had a good Independence Day; I had a celebration with family and then one with friends, each with impressive fireworks.

And the fireworks we have tonight are glorious, aren't they? And look! You can see people on the other side of the bay setting off fireworks too....

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

THE THREE IMPOSTORS by Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen is one of those seminal authors that everyone respects and pays homage to, but too few have actually read. I discovered him long ago via an anthology reprint of an episode from this, the deservedly famous "Novel of the White Powder," and I was hooked.

The Three Impostors (published 1895) is an interesting work; while it contains quite a bit of horror, at its core it is a mystery novel, albeit one with ambiguous elements that leave the door open to horror. It features Machen's occult detective Dyson, a somewhat pretentious and sometimes ineffectual presence, but oddly likable. He has pretenses of being a writer but is really an idle dilettante, but often finds himself in weird situations.

The novel is separated into a number of episodes. In the first, "The Adventure of the Gold Tiberius," Dyson, with his Watson (aka Charles Phillipps) find a gold coin in the street, only to discover it is an unbelievably rare and valuable Roman coin. In "The Encounter of the Pavement," they seek the person who dropped the coin, a furtive young man in spectacles, only to encounter someone else looking for the young man, a gent who proceeds to tell "The Novel of Dark Valley." In that, the man tells a tale of being hired as a secretary by a mysterious Englishman who then takes him to America, and then off to an isolated area of Colorado, where he eventually learns his employer is the head of a gang of criminals and is almost lynched when the locals mistake him for his boss. It's actually a fairly forgettable tale; I had to skim it again to remind myself of what went down.

Next is "The Adventure of the Missing Brother," in which Dyson and Phillipps are approached by a young lady who claims to be the sister of the mysterious man in spectacles, but who then proceeds to tell "The Novel of the Black Seal." This is one of the more famous parts of the book, and sometimes anthologized on its own. In it, the woman recounts how she took a job as a secretary to a scholar who lived in the wilds of Wales. The scholar is studying the primitive traditions of the aboriginal peoples of Britain (a repeated theme in Machen), and has the "black seal" of the title, an object that has an inscription in seeming cuneiform, and which is described as "Ixaxar" in an old Roman text, which also explains it as a holy object to a deformed, short people who dwell in the hills. Eventually, his researches lead him to a boy who is a seeming changeling, and then, well, things happen, kind of. It's a tale more shuddersome for what is implied rather than what actually happens, and all the horrors are offstage....still, it's most unsettling and a story that makes a sundrenched countryside seem macabre.

Next up is "The Incident of the Private Bar" where Dyson and Phillipps meet a man who claims to be afraid of the young man in spectacles, and who paints a picture of him as a manipulative con artist. Then comes "The Decorative Imagination" in which Dyson tries to figure out what's going on, and their new friend Burton tells "The Novel of the Iron Maid," a slight tale in which the man tells of visiting a friend who collects torture implements, and witnesses him being accidentally slain by the "Iron Maid" of the title.

Then is "The Recluse of Bayswater" in which they encounter a reclusive young woman, who tells the very, very famous "Novel of the White Powder." She claims to be the sister of a young scholar who was horribly run down, and whose family doctor prescribed a medication in the form of a white powder. At first he seems well, and then behaves oddly, eventually becoming a recluse who never leaves his room. The sister consults the doctor, who analyzes the medication....and horrors, it's not what he prescribed, but something hideously different....

This is the most famous part of the novel, and probably the only Machen story most have read. It actually works well out of the context of the framing story, and has an almost-perfect buildup of horror and suspense, with a satisfying payoff. You will probably find this in any number of anthologies, so check your book collection, you may have it already.

Finally, we have "The Strange Occurrence in Clerkenwell" in which Dyson finally finds the man he's been pursuing, and then learns "The History of the Young Man with Spectacles." He turns out to be a student who fell in with a certain sinister Dr. Lipsius, who runs a secret society dedicated to re-enacting pagan orgies (and, it's vaguely hinted, occult ceremonies and Black Masses). The society wants that coin, and the young man decides to take the coin and clear out. It's then that Dyson and Phillipps learn that all the people they've encountered were impostors, and the tales they've heard were intended only to distract and mislead them.

Finally, in "The Adventure of the Deserted Residence," we have a conclusion that's actually fairly gruesome and tragic. Dyson makes it to the end, but again, he's fairly ineffectual and arrives too late.

It's an interesting variation on Victorian horror, when Decadence was really coming into its own, and free of the "antiquarian" trappings of M. R. James and his imitators, who I love, don't get me wrong, but it's good to see someone of the era going his own way. I've seen Machen classed as one of the "Visionary" school; he prefigures Lovecraft in using the horrors that are just outside human perception, and horror through inference. Lipsius is very decadent, obviously, with his staging of pagan orgies for fun and profit, but Dyson is Decadent, representing the values of spleen and impuissance, and a certain neurasthenia, in his approach to the world. He may be a detective, but he's not a very good one, and seems to be doing it more for the amusement value than out of any sense of right and wrong. That, and his fascination with the weird and uncanny.

Lipsius is also somewhat underused, but he's one of those villains who's best left a cypher. I love his name, though, and once I wanted to use my own version of him as a villain in a horror RPG. I might use him again.

"The Three Impostors" is a mixed bag but is definitely worth reading for those wanting something different from the Victorian age, and to look into a work that influenced many later writers. It's easily available for free, or almost free, online, and there are plenty of used copies out there, like the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition from 1972 pictured above; that's a lovely addition to your bookshelf.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Steamy Night at the Movies

June got hot and stayed hot, and we're all moving at half speed, if we're lucky. The meal we share at our usual restaurant is a light one, and the new line of gelati for dessert is a welcome break.

Then we quickly run up to the theater up the block...and thank goodness their air conditioning is working! Almost too well!

As the cool air wafts over us, we strap in for tonight's feature, 1934's Murder in the Museum!



Yes, it is flawed, but it is worthwhile for a glimpse at the dime museums of yore, something now long gone.

After the show, we hope the heat has lifted...but no, the humidity has just grown worse. We limp up the street to that little cafe, hoping for something cold before we part ways for the night...

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: The Sand-Man

"Vilhelm Pedersen, OLE LUKØJE, ubt" by Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-1859) - Eventyr og historier for børn 1905.
And now we tackle one of the strangest and most notorious of Hoffmann's works, "The Sand-Man," first published in 1817.

An epistolary tale, the central character is Nathanael, an unstable fellow who feared the Sandman when he was growing up. His father was often visited by the obnoxious lawyer Coppelius, and Nathanael and his siblings are always sent to bed when Coppelius visits. Nathanael soon begins to think Coppelius IS the Sandman, and hides himself one night to watch when he comes. It turns out his father is working on some alchemical experiments with Coppelius; when discovered, Coppelius threatens to tear out the boy's eyes and tortures him until he passes out. (And the kid was already freaking out, thinking that the Sandman would throw sand in his eyes and then steal them.)

Nathanael's father later dies in a fire caused by Coppelius' experiments, and Coppelius leaves town. As a grown student, Nathanael sees a man selling barometers and optics named Coppola, and is convinced he is being stalked by Coppelius.

Nathanael is bethrothed to the lovely Klara, and his best friend is her brother Lothar. Klara worries about her beloved's obsessions; he writes gloomy poetry and is terrified that Coppelius/Coppola will come back to ruin his happiness. Klara dismisses his fears, there's a blow-up, and nearly a duel between Lothar and Nathanael until Klara intervenes, bring peace, temporarily.

But when Nathanael returns to his studies, he finds his lodgings have burned down and he seeks shelter in a building across the way from physics professor Spallanzani, who has a lovely daughter, Olympia. Nathanael naturally forgets about Klara and falls for Olympia. He also tries to make peace with Coppola by buying some optics from him, and uses them to spy on Olympia.

Spallanzani gives a party to present Olympia to the community; she plays the harpsichord, sings, and dances, but everyone notes how pale and stiff she seems. Nathanael still swoons for her, and reads her his ghastly poetry, to which she only responds with "Ah! Ah!" which he interprets as her understanding hid Deep And Significant Soul, while the others find her dull and stupid.

Nathanael goes to Olympia to propose, but finds Spallanzani and Coppola fighting over her, arguing over who made her eyes and the clockwork. Olympia is an automaton that Spallanzi has been passing off as his daughter, and Coppola really was Coppelius after all. The sight of Olympia's eyes torn out drives him into a frenzy, and he attacks Spallanzi and ends up being thrown in an asylum while Coppelius escapes.

Nathanael recovers, and resolves to marry Klara. On a romantic afternoon, they climb a church steeple to look at the view, when she points something out to him. He pulls out one of Coppola's optics to look, and gets Klara in his view....and sees her as Olympia. Going insane again, he tries to throw Klara over, and after she's saved by Lothar, Coppelius (who is standing in the crowd) wryly jokes that Nathanael will come down soon enough....and he does, throwing himself over the parapet, screaming about the pretty eyes. Coppelius vanishes, and Klara eventually finds happiness with someone else.

It's a hell of a ride, and at first seems full of disconnected episodes, until you put together that Coppelius had roped Nathanael's father into an early version of the clockwork robot scheme. And really, this one of the earliest literary uses of a robot.

It's also interesting from a psychological point of view. Klara dismisses Nathanael's obsessions as existing only in his head, and explains them away as the result of his early trauma at Coppelius' hands...making this an early jab at exploring post-traumatic stress disorder. Nathanael is also horribly narcissistic, thinking only of himself and seeing things only as reflections of himself. It's also up to debate how much of this is real and how much is in Nathanael's imagination. It's no wonder that Sigmund Freud extensively dissected this tale in his essay, "The Uncanny." Clearly Hoffmann understood the human psyche pretty well for his time, not only noting abnormal psychology but also how self-deceptive the narcissistic young can be. This definitely counts as one of the first psychological horror stories, in addition to the above-noted literary use of a robot.

There's also elements of satire that I didn't note in my summary; there's many conversational asides and an occasional snarky tone that might detract for some. But there's also a great bit when, in conversation with Klara, Nathanael rants about how Coppelius is an evil genius ruining his life, and Klara responds with how Coppelius is an evil genius ruining her coffee. It's a good, very human moment of comedy, but also is often seen as a satirical jab at the self-importance of young Romantics. (So you see, since he was a Romantic himself, he was also not above poking fun at himself.) It's also often seen as taking jabs at Enlightenment-era science; after all, Hoffmann was a great nonconformist, and loved criticizing society.

This has been one of the favorite Hoffmann stories for adaptation. Most notably, an episode of Offenbach's opera "Tales of Hoffman" is based on it, including a gorgeous aria sung by Olympia, which has her winding down and having to be rewound several times. Also, Delibe's ballet "Coppelia" is a very loose adaptation. I won't bore you by yet again posting something from Offenbach, and Delibes' ballet is frequently performed, with many recordings, and a film of the ballet was made with Walter Slezak in 1968, and while not great, it does have a certain charm.

It was also adapted in 1852 as the opera "La poupée de Nuremberg" by Adolphe Adam; here's the overture:



...and then again in 1892 as "La poupée" by Edmond Audran; here's some selections:



...and again in 2002 as "The Sandman," by Thomas Cabaniss, but I can't find any samples.

An unexpected influence was in a work by John Bellairs, a noted author of young-adult horror novels. His book "The Eyes of the Killer Robot" concerns a clockwork automaton who is brought to life by enchanted eyes...of course, this robot is more concerned with playing baseball and going berserk.

So, this is really one to track down and read. Thankfully there are free versions everywhere and it's frequently anthologized, so it's easy to find. I have yet to read Freud's dissection of it...I may, I may not; I think Freud was a trailblazer in some ways but also full of shit in many others.

So...more on the way!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

June Begins in the Phantom Recital Hall

The opening of June is unseasonably cool, rainy, and generally dreary and depressing, but we're cheering ourselves up with some music. A baroque ensemble is performing at the music school, doing some interesting stuff....



This is Biagio Marini's "Sonata in Ecco con Tre Violini," and is one of the most innovative and strange works from the early 17th century. It calls for one violinist to be on stage, visible to the audience, and two others to be offstage in different positions in the concert hall, out of the audience's view. Audiences then get the effect of the violinist onstage doing a riff, and then having it seemingly echoed from different parts of the room. The effect is certainly surreal, if not downright ghostly. An imaginative person could have fun imagining who was offstage with a violin. The Phantom of the Opera? Dr. Mirakle? Satan?

(I was lucky enough to be at a live performance of this once, years ago; it's best when experienced live. Youtube is an OK substitute, but something is definitely lost in a simple recording.)

Shall we go somewhere for a glass of wine afterward?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Sultry May Night at the Movies

We're in the midst of a late-spring heat wave, with sky-high temperatures and humidity to match. Folks are breaking out the linen clothes, the short sleeves, the summer dresses, and even the white shoes, and Memorial Day isn't here yet.

Our dinner at the familiar old restaurant is a light one, and conversation largely revolves around what we plan to this summer. Some are planning visits to conventions, or major vacations here and there, while a few are planning a long weekend at a quiet spot near the sea.

Once dinner is over, we wander up the street to that charming old movie house...

To match the sultry weather, we have the tropical setting of 1934's "Picture Brides," a classic B-movie thriller.



After the show, we head up the street, hoping for a cold drink at that little cafe....

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What I've Been Reading Lately

While the title may make you think of something very English-village-cozy, this is actually an interesting variation on the hardboiled formula, only set in the world of music box collectors. Dr. Thomas Purdue, an emergency room surgeon who's also a collector, gets a hot tip to buy an unbelievably rare music box for an indecently low price. It needs a few minor repairs, so he gives it to a good friend who's the best music box repairman around...only he is murdered and the box is missing. And then the dealer he bought it from is murdered as well. Soon nearly everyone who came into contact with the box is murdered. Why? Purdue is determined to find out before he becomes the next victim.

Purdue is tough, and while he cares for his friends and his estranged wife, his greatest devotion is to antiques, and you learn a lot about music boxes and other clockwork gadgets from this book. The mystery is well-constructed but not quite fair-play; there is a major clue hidden from the reader that would reveal the murderer too early. Still, it's an enjoyable enough book, and will make you want to browse for music boxes the next time you're out antiquing. This spawned a couple of sequels.

And I finally got on the bandwagon and started on the Lucifer Box novels by Mark Gatiss, and it matched my mood. I wanted something sexy and snarky and arch, and that was unashamed of having a pulpy plot, and his fit the bill.

Lucifer Box is a portrait painter who is also a secret agent for the British government in 1900. His superior meets him while sitting on the toilet, in a scene that's like a tarted-up version of "Get Smart." Box sets about seducing a young woman who comes to him for drawing lessons, but then gets summoned to Italy to investigate the disappearance of an agent...and of a number of scientists and geologists as well. It takes a number of enjoyable twists and turns, and quite a few characters are sexually ambiguous, so this isn't for the too conservative. (But if you're very conservative, what are you doing reading this?)

Seriously, though, this is a lot of fun, with a big pulpy plot. I've read too many Victorian/steampunk adventures that try too hard to be lit-ra-choor and lack the courage of their convictions to simply be enjoyable books with solid plots. Pick this one up for a good time.

I recently picked up a modern reprinting of Kathleen Winsor's notorious epic FOREVER AMBER and while it's massive (over 1,000 pages), so far it's enjoyable as a bodice-ripping romp. While somewhat sexually frank, it's hardly the smut it was made out to be in the 40s. And it's a very well-researched look at Restoration England and the court of the Merry Monarch, Charles II.

And I picked this up while used-book shopping; it's a 1950 edition of MISCHIEF, by Charlotte Armstrong, a crackerjack thriller writer of the 50s and 60s who is criminally forgotten today. This was filmed in 1952 as DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK, starring Marilyn Monroe. Isn't that an amazing cover?

So that's what I'm reading lately....What are you reading?




Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Phantom Ballad for May

We've been out to a movie, and stopped by a slightly shabby yet still dignified bar by the harbor for a drink. Conversation is sparkling, and there's live music tonight. The drinks are good but although it's cozy in the bar, the threat of rain outside has lent an odd sense of forboding to it all.

Then one of the musicians gets up and sings this old folk ballad...



Was that a woman's face looking in the window? A shudder passes down your back as you avoid looking, afraid you'll see something you'd rather not deal with....

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Happy Walpurgisnacht, and Happy Seventh BIrthday

It's Walpurgisnacht! If you're doing something, hope it's fun! I'm housebound tonight; I'm feeling a bit unwell (sleep deprivation, mostly; I barely slept last night thanks to an eye irritation that has now been treated) and Baltimore is still under a curfew because of the riots, and even though I'm just outside the city, all my favorite places are in town. So it's the DVR and Chinese delivery tonight, I think.

But I'm proud of keeping this going for seven years! And I've been toying with thoughts of a new project....stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: The Nutcracker and the King of Mice

We finally arrive at Hoffmann's best-known tale; in fact, you may be wondering why I'm bothering to review it, as nearly everyone knows it. But really....it's worth a closer look.

"The Nutcracker and the King of Mice" opens on Christmas Eve, with the Stahlbaum family eagerly awaiting the arrival of Godpapa Drosselmeier, who always brings the best presents. Drosselmeier, a master of clockworks who wears a glass wig (!), always brings complicated clockwork toys, and this year is no exception. Young Fritz is enchanted with a clockwork castle at first, but then grows bored with it, while his sister Marie is taken with the famous Nutcracker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Drosselmeier.

Marie puts the Nutcracker with her dolls, noticing that it appears to make horrible faces when she mentions Drosselmeier. Then things get weird, in a wonderfully surreal scene. A carved owl on top of the grandfather clock turns into Drosselmeier, a horde of mice arrive, and then the Nutcracker, the dolls, and Fritz's toy soldiers come to life. As in the ballet, Marie throws her slipper at the seven-headed King of the Mice, but in this story, she lacerates her arm on a glass cabinet door and passes out before she discovers the result of her actions.

Marie is laid up for a few days due to blood loss, and it's unclear if any of this really happened or if it was merely a vivid dream by an imaginative girl. Drosselmeier visits, and after singing her a weird, unsettling song, he tells her the tale of Princess Pirlipat, who was turned into a nutcracker from a curse by the witch-queen of the mice, and how the court Arcanist and Clockmaker, Drosselmeier himself, found a cure for the curse, which could only be effected by Drosselmeier's nephew. He manages to life the curse, but due to the intervention of the mouse queen, is turned into a Nutcracker himself (although it costs the queen her life), and he is then spurned by the princess and the court.

Marie recovers, and Drosselmeier tells Marie a few things that clue you in that he's fully aware of what's going on, and even may be the driving force behind this. The Mouse King harasses Marie at night, until finally she goes to the Nutcracker, who vows love and slays the king himself.

Then is one of my favorite bits in the story: The Nutcracker opens the doors of a wardrobe, climbs up and pulls the tassel on a fox-fur coat, which causes a ladder to fall from the sleeve. He and Marie climb the ladder, and find themselves on a meadow. From here the Nutcracker takes her on a tour of his realm, the Kingdom of Toys, with rivers of lemonade and people made of sugar. It's a pleasantly surreal journey, with some dabs of what seems to have been political commentary. Then suddenly Marie wakes; again, was it all a dream?

Drosselmeier arrives...and brings his nephew, newly arrived from Nuremberg. Marie and the nephew fall in love, are married a year later....and he takes her off to live in a marzipan castle.

The story is actually darker than the ballet, and while there's a lot of kid-friendly stuff in it, it's also creepy and unsettling at times. Drosselmeier is an ambiguous character at first, sometimes seeming more like a villain. He turns out to be good; was this a sign of the story needing some touching up?

There's no dancing Sugar Plum Fairy, and there's some fairly gruesome bits, like when the mouse queen dies when she's stepped on, and sometimes people are cruel and heartless. Fritz can be an awful bastard, and Marie can seem like a naive drip, but also sentimental and steadfast in her loyalty. And the descriptions of clockwork toys, and Marie's dolls, and of the candies and other facets of an 18th century German Christmas celebration, make this a nicely sentimental and cozy read for the holiday season.

And what about that bit where they enter another world through a wardrobe? Did C. S. Lewis read this?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An April Night at the Movies!

It's an April night, we've done our taxes, and some of us are on meds for allergies. But we're all getting together yet again for our dinner-and-a-movie date, albeit a bit delayed.

That one over there had to pay through the nose, but the one next to them is getting a big return so they're picking up his tab. And for some of us it makes little difference. Still, it's always good to catch up, to talk about our latest reading material, antique shopping, used-book finds, cemetery exploring, rambles in the country, kitchen experiments, and how we're all getting worn out by superhero movies.

After splitting the bill, we head up the street to the old movie house we love so much...

Tonight's film is the 1934 chiller HOUSE OF MYSTERY.



The flick over, we amble up the street to our favorite cafe....some of us sneezing on the way....

Saturday, April 11, 2015

TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES, edited by Sarah Weinman

I found out about this anthology from the excellent Classic Mysteries podcast, and and glad I did. This is good stuff.

"Domestic suspense" is a subgenre of mystery/thriller fiction that focuses on family relationships, either spousal, parental or a mix, and is normally regarded as the purview of women writers. I've some across scornful remarks that it was the "kitchen sink" school, but as Edna Buchanan once wrote, the person most likely to murder you is sitting across the breakfast table, and she knows her business.

My favorites from the collection? There's Patricia Highsmith's early story "The Heroine," about an unstable woman who's hired as a governess for a well-to-do family, with tragic results. I mean, c'mon, it's Highsmith, of course it's exceptional.

Another good one is "Louisa, Please Come Home" by Shirley Jackson, an incredible tale of a girl who runs away from her wealthy family, covers her tracks, and starts a new life in another city. The exact reasons for her leaving are nebulous, and she's on the verge of forming a new family, when someone from her past shows up and wants to take her home. It's a great tale, full of psychological depth and devastating irony.

Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady" is a story of a singer who's growing tired of her most requested song, which her fans don't realize is a tale of the loss of a beloved childhood friend, a nanny who liked to wear lavender. But as the story progresses you realize the singer has filtered the tale through a very sentimental lens, and there's a lot of darkness lurking.

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" by Helen Nielsen is a great noir story of a woman, married to a prominent businessman, who is being harassed by a former lover, a pianist. She hatches a scheme to be free of him once and for all, but it takes an unexpected twist.

Some of the others are pretty good but didn't leap out at me as much. Nedra Tyre's "A Nice Place to Stay" is a tale of a woman who prefers life in prison to a hardscrabble, chancy life on the outside. "Sugar and Spice" is a nice tale from Vera Caspary, but I was more enthused by finding out more about Caspary's feminist leanings, which means I have to re-watch "Laura" and view it through a feminist lens instead of the usual gay-rights lens I employ. "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington is a good psychological tale of a long-suffering wife who's finally had enough. Miriam Allen Deford's "Mortmain" is a ferociously nasty tale of a nurse who plans to rob her dying patient after poisoning him, and of the patient who has his own ideas.

Of the others...well, they're good, but some seemed a little out of place. Dorothy B. Hughes's "Everybody Needs a Mink" hardly seems like it belongs here, as there's no real crime or suspense going on. "The Stranger in the Car" by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is a rather run-of-the-mill murder story, at least to my eye, as is "The Splintered Monday" by Charlotte Armstrong. "Lost Generation" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis is hideously nasty, and not as much about domestic relations as it is about racism and prejudice in small towns. "The People Across the Canyon" is memorable and good, but it has a supernatural twist at the end and comes across as a lost episode of "The Twilight Zone" than something from a mystery anthology. The collection closes with "A Case of Maximum Need" by Celia Fremlin, a nasty psycho-thriller that is quite good but doesn't quite strike me as domestic.

Even with a few stories that seemed like they didn't belong, I still had a fabulous time with this collection, and I've added quite a few of the authors' works to my shopping list. (I picked up a lovely vintage Armstrong title, "Murder's Nest", a couple of weeks ago during a used-book expedition.) I know there's a move lately for folks to read less works by white male authors, so this at least will have you reading more female authors! (I don't pay much attention to such campaigns myself; I read what interests me and the author's sex or ethnicity doesn't come much into it, although I do find I read a lot by female authors anyway.)

So seek this one out, folks, it's a great collection, even if there's a few that seem off, and like any good anthology, it will clue you in to other authors to seek out. Get it and have a blast.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

April at the Phantom Concert Hall!

Tonight there's a spring gala a that restored old concert hall we visited last month! We've made an evening of it, dining at a new Eastern European restaurant nearby and then heading over to the venue. It's a cool night, but not as cold as it has been; spring has been sluggish in arriving this year, after a winter of much snow and long sustained cold snaps.

The gala is a fundraiser for the restoration work on the hall, and has quite a few impressive performers, and one very memorable moment...



This is an aria from a lesser-known Lehar operetta, "Gypsy Love," and I adore it. I have such a terrible weakness for gypsy-tinged music, and this is a shining example of it.

We file out afterwards, the fundraiser having been a great success....a glass of absinthe awaits us at that bar up ahead....

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann: "A New Year's Eve Adventure"

Peter Schlemihl, sans shadow.
This is a rather strange tale in structure, perhaps another experiment by Hoffmann?

It's narrated by a "Traveling Enthusiast" who goes to a New Year's Eve party in Berlin, and as a sort of surprise by his host, is reunited by his long-lost love Julia, who treats the narrator coldly and cruelly...and never tells him she is married to someone else. Distraught, he leaves the party and finds a beer cellar.

There he encounters Peter Schlemihl and his frenemy Erasmus Spikher. Schlemihl lacks a shadow, and as such is shunned by human society. Spikher lacks a reflection, and tells the narrator how he lost it. Interestingly, his tale is of an obsession with a beautiful courtesan, Giulietta, who bounces between warmth and cruelty, and Spikher abandons his family for her, eventually losing everything.

It's a somewhat intriguing tale, but it can seem a bit opaque at times, largely because Peter Schlemihl is forgotten today. He was a character created by Adelbert von Chamisso for a pious children's book (published in 1814) about a man who sells his shadow to the devil for an ever-full purse, but eventually discards it and finds redemption as a humble observer of the world. "A New Year's Eve Adventure" was published in 1815 and one supposes that technically this could be considered copyright infringement, if such a thing were being enforced in 1815. But in the past, there were many such crossovers, with authors lifting another author's character and having them face a new situation or team them up with a new character.

The story itself is a classic "beware the femme fatale" or a retread of Keats "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," which went on to the toxic dames of film noir and the sexy ladies of direct-to-video erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s, which I once saw referred to as "La Belle Dame Sans Panties" (I want to use that for a title sometime, perhaps a play.) It's a classic trope, as misogynist as it may be, but we recognize its familiarity. Although it can also be seen as a commentary on the central characters' weaknesses; they simply can't let go of their obsession with Julia/Giulietta, and that obsession leads to their self-destruction. Ultimately, nobody in this is really good or admirable. Julia may be a cold, manipulative bitch, but the men she leads around are no better, fools who cheat on their spouses and can't move on from a sexual obsession.

This story formed the basis of the third act of Offenbach's opera "Tales of Hoffmann," and includes of the most famous tunes from the opera, and one of the popular tunes in the general classical repertoire, the "Barcarolle." You've probably heard it somewhere, even if you're not a classical fan. Here's an instrumental version...



All told, "A New Year's Eve Adventure" is an OK tale, with some atmosphere in the rathskeller scenes and some effectiveness in Spikher's story of his self-destruction, and some universal truths when it explores how sometimes your encounters with lost loves are just damned painful. But the business with Peter Schlemihl is a problem; you end up having to do some research just to understand part of what's going on. It hasn't aged completely well.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

THE CASEBOOK OF JULES DE GRANDIN, by Seabury Quinn

The second de Grandin collection does show some development of Quinn as a writer....some, but not much. He was a pulp writer who had occasional flashes of grace, but at least was never dull, a huge crime in the pulp market. And this book is certainly enjoyable, if not of any real literary stature.

Interestingly, Harrisonville, NJ (the center of de Grandin's universe) doesn't quite serve as a Hellmouth, spewing forth supernatural evil, but it does seem to attract it, as most of the menace here is transplanted. In "Children of Ubasti," a pair of strange immigrants come to Harrisonville, who turn out to be man-eating inhuman creatures, some sort of felinoid creature passing for human, who may have been the inspiration for the ghuls of Middle Eastern lore. It does end with an eyebrow-raising rant from de Grandin about how America is too tolerant of immigrants, which is a bit odd coming from a character who is an immigrant.

"The House of Horror" is a fairly grisly tale of how de Grandin and Dr. Trowbridge stumble on a mansion inhabited by a mad surgeon who enjoys operating on...and mutilating...beautiful women. It has the two facing an interesting ethical conflict, but all is resolved by a too-convenient deus ex machina ending.

"The Silver Countess" has de Grandin squaring off against a vampire who inhabits a medieval statue brought to the country by a collector. "The Corpse-Master" is unsurprisingly a tale of a man using voodoo to raise zombies, in this case to get vengeance on those who slighted him. (Some of these villains seek vengeance for very petty reasons...)

"Ancient Fires" is a rather nice little story that starts off as a haunted house tale, but ends up being a a love story with its origins in a Victorian romance that crossed racial boundaries; despite a pat ending that makes things acceptable to the American reader of the time, it does have a surprisingly progressive view of ethic relations.

"The Serpent Woman" is the least story of the collection, in which a seeming case of a baby kidnapped by a monster has a rather dull, mundane solution. But the last, "The Chapel of Mystic Horror," is the best. A well-off family buys a mansion that was imported stone-for-stone from Cyprus, after the people who brought it over died mysteriously. A house party is stricken with strange events, including an artist who finds herself painting scenes she's not intending to paint. A joking seance leads to even more menace, and an ancient evil that comes from the very stones themselves turns out to be at fault. It's a story with some nifty macabre touches and a reasonable solution.

All told, it's like other Quinn works. It's pulp nonsense, but it's fun pulp nonsense that's still readable today. If you can, seek it out.