Wednesday, June 24, 2015


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?