Monday, December 19, 2016

A December Night at the Cinema!

So it's just before the Christmas break, and we're having our monthly night out. We need a night away from the usual holiday rush and bustle, and our usual restaurant saves us a nice secluded table so we don't have to hear the office Christmas party crowd. We do get some extra holiday treats, which is nice, but the holiday grind has us exhausted and having a night away from it is a blessing.

After dinner, and dithering over the check, we saunter up the street, through the cold wind, to that shabby old movie theater that welcomes us in warm comfort.

Tonight's flick is the 1936 thriller The Dark Hour.



This is a solid piece of work from a long-gone Poverty Row studio named Chesterfield, and full of old-dark-house atmosphere and a weird killer for the time. One of the unusual things is the presence of future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as a romantic interest!

The show over, we hurry up the street, through the cold wind, for a final drink at that little cafe up the way...

Sunday, December 18, 2016

THE WHISTLE, THE GRAVE, AND THE GHOST by Brad Strickland

More fun with the Barnavelts!

Teenage Lewis Barnavelt is on a Boy Scout trip in the woods near New Zebedee, MI, when he stumbles on a boulder with the inscription HIC IACET LAMIA. Nearby, he finds an tubular object under a stone he's picking up for the camp fireplace. That night, his tent is shredded by an unseen force. Lewis is having troubles with bullies again, as well as an unfriendly priest at the local Catholic church he attends.

The whistle has the words SIBILA ET VENIAM inscribed on it; Lewis cleans it off and hopes to learn the history of the strange object. He opens up to Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann (thankfully, the days of pointless secret-keeping are over) and they investigate. However, Lewis is chased by the bullies one night and blows on the whistle in a panic...and a strange being shows up...

It's clearly an extrapolation of the classic M. R. James story "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad," and this time the spirit is explicitly vampiric and forms a body from whatever is handy...bedsheets, dead leaves, whatever. There's discussions of "deep magic," stuff from outside our dimension that is so rare that the magicians in the story won't sense it or know how to combat it. (Of course, it ends up being part of the story!) And the grumpy priest turns out to have his own secret as well.

It's good fun, solidly written, if not especially artistic. There is a late-story revelation that kind of comes out of nowhere, but it works well enough, and the creature is eerie and memorable. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

December at the Phantom Concert Hall!

So, it's early in December, and we're already sick of Christmas music blaring at us EVERYWHERE. Really, it can get disgusting after a while. There are some who love that sort of thing year 'round, and more power to them, you do you, but for me, a little goes a long way, and really, sometimes they spew out the worst dreck and it gets played because it's about Christmas.

So for a change, we're doing the symphony tonight (with the possibility of a holiday concert later in the season, if our sanity can handle it) and here's something different....Benjamin Britten's "Sea Interludes." These were originally part of his opera Peter Grimes, but are frequently performed on their own and work well that way. Here's the "Storm" interlude...



Quite a show, eh? All four are worth listening to. I was never much for Britten before hearing this, now I'm intrigued.

So, where do we go for dinner after the concert?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE IRON ANGEL by Edward D. Hoch

The late Edward D. Hoch wrote close to a thousand short stories with over a dozen series characters, and this is one of the more intriguing. The detective in this one is Michael Vlado, a Romany (or gypsy) living in then-contemporary Romania, and halfway through the series he gets to deal with the realities of the collapse of Romania's Communist regime, something I'm sure Hoch didn't expect but probably relished.

Michael Vlado was born (as a literary character) in 1985 for an anthology entitled The Ethnic Detective, and later stories were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine sporadically until 2002. He's not quite the romantic vagabond mystical pulp-fiction gypsy we're so used to in B-movies, but part of a permanent village of Romany in modern-day Romania, and the series is firmly grounded in everyday life under the Ceausescu regime, which was no picnic.

That being said, Hoch does manage to fit in some genuine Gypsy lore and sometimes the stories do take a bend for the bizarre. The title story, "The Iron Angel," has Vlado called to Bucharest when an acquaintance (an American drifter introduced in an earlier story, a tragic character in search of something, anything to make her life whole) was the witness to the death of a gypsy, whose last words were "the three eyes of the iron angel." While it sounds supernatural and occult in nature, the ultimate solution is mundane, if a bit exotic.

And that's something that turns up a lot in this series. While the setting and some of the trappings may be exotic, human passions and evil are the same all over, and murder is still murder. "The Gypsy Treasure" does involve a treasure, of course, but also human greed. "The Murder of a Gypsy King" involves some esoterica of Romany tradition, but also the tragedy of a robbery for profit. "The Gypsy Delegate" involves the realities of post-communist Romania, when it seemed possible that the exiled King Michael might return to rule. "The Puzzle Garden" has a crumbling mansion with a weird garden and a possible treasure, but the old emotions of rage and greed still apply. And the last two stories in the collection, "The Starkworth Atrocity" and "A Wall Too High," directly address anti-Romany prejudice that still exists in Europe.

Hoch also shows his strength as a technician of plot, although not always the most gracious stylist. And given these stories were written over almost a quarter-century, you do see a certain evolution in his style as it goes along. The one thing that bugged me is that this is not a complete collection. There's a list of all the published Vlado stories in the back, and I supposed this is a best-of collection. I'd have appreciated a complete collection.

The Iron Angel is a great collection in two ways. It entertains with well-written mysteries with good plots, but also educates about a nation and a way of life that is alien to most of us. And let's be honest, I was a sucker for anything about a gypsy sleuth, and you likely will be too. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

November's Night Out at the Movies!

Just before Thanksgiving, we need a break from the ratrace. We gather in our favorite restaurant, discussing all that's gone on in our lives, and avoiding discussion of the elections by mutual consent. We eat lightly, much to the distress of the waiter, but we're all anticipating the pig-out later in the week.

And after splitting the bill (Rose, really, I can't let you keep springing for me...but thank you...), we head up the street to that old movie theater we love so much.

Tonight's show is the 1935 mystery drama Midnight Phantom!



Yes, it's pulpy, and displays its Poverty Row origins on its sleeve, but it's still good fun, right?

The movie over, we wander down the street for one last drink at that small cafe...hoping we all survive Thanksgiving....

THE TOWER AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Brad Strickland

Hooray! Back to more book reviews! Sorry, folks, I was sidelined for a while by various factors, including a serious illness in the family, my own struggles to find a job, and being sent reeling by the election results. It's been a rough few weeks, although it looks like I have a couple of interviews coming up so here's hoping.

Anyway...The Tower at the End of the World is Strickland's sequel to the first Barnavelt novel, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It opens with the Barnavelts being invited by Rose Rita's Grandpa Galway to visit him on an island in Lake Superior, where he's house-sitting for a wealthy Navy friend, for a holiday full of sailing and exploring. It all sounds good, until Uncle Jonathan is attacked in the house's basement and the long-shut door in the coal bin, that leads to heaven-knows-what, is pried open. Although there are disquieting footprints, nothing is taken, and they're willing to dismiss it as a burglar.

On their island holiday, Lewis is given a letter with some macabre drawings on it, Mrs. Zimmermann, an accomplished witch, feels something is off about it, but can't put her finger on it. Meanwhile, the crew are sailing on the lake and come across an island where none was before, an island decorated by bizarre sculptures and a tall, sinister tower. They explore briefly, but are too freaked out to stay.

Back in New Zebedee, Lewis has a number of frightening experiences, including an encounter with a Japanese evil spirit, the Kuchisake Onna, or Wide-Mouthed Woman. It's obvious that Lewis is being targeted by some supernatural force....but who? and why?

It turns out that Isaac and Selenna Izard, who had built the house the Barnavelts now live in, and who had planned to destroy the world, had a son, Ishmael Izard, and he plans to not only get revenge on Lewis but complete his parents' work. The team has to work to not only save Lewis from being devoured by supernatural beasties, but also locate and destroy the new Doomsday Clock.

It's entertaining for fans of classic horror and ghost stories; part of the plot is (obviously) based on "Casting the Runes" by M. R. James, including a mention of the evil wizard Karswell. There's also an amusing reference to real-life crackpot mystic Hans Horbiger, who believed the universe was made of ice.

There's a lot of good teamwork here, with Lewis and Rose Rita being open with the adults about what's going on, and more trust evident. The solution to the story is a little obvious, but maybe it's because I'm so steeped in esoteric lore that the minute I read that the mysterious isle was called Gnomon Island I immediately knew the nature of the new Doomsday Clock.

Still, it was a good read and definitely one of the better ones. It was sadly lacking any Edward Gorey art; Gorey had passed away and further books would be without his special style.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

THE TRUTH OF ALL THINGS by Kieran Shields

This was a random library find, and a good one.

It's Portland, Maine, in 1892. Deputy Marshall Archie Lean is called in when a grotesque murder takes place; a prostitute has been found gruesomely stabbed with a pitchfork through her throat and a bloody cross cut into her torso. Bizarre findings around the body point to some sort of ritual, and criminalist Perceval Grey, who is part Native American, is called in to look at the crime scene. He and Grey get along well and team up to find the killer.

This was a pleasant surprise, as the plot is steeped in the Salem Witch Trials, The murderer is obviously attempting some sort of black magic here, but what? The involves fortune tellers and spiritualists, and a medium who does seem to have real powers. Even though I'm a hard-nosed skeptic, I did enjoy how the story straddled the line between the mundane and the mystical.

The addition of supernatural gothic elements to a historical procedural mystery were very entertaining. The characters were also fun; Archie Lean is a father-to-be, rather old-fashioned, but with a sense of humor and of what's wrong and right. Perceval Grey is all science, young, exotic, and sometimes an exasperating stick-in-the-mud. There is a somewhat contrived romance that does take away from the story, but only in a very minor way.

There's a sequel I want to get to, but it seems the Lean and Grey series ended there; I saw a note on the author's page that his publisher had declined on a further story. Let's hope he find some one else to publish it, because I think Shields is on to something here.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Phantom Puppet Show for November!

I came across a great video, and thought I'd do something a little different for November. We're all having our Halloween hangovers (I'm certainly still in the mood) and this delightful video, based on the old song "Mysterious Mose", is great fun. The song is the source of that "da-da-da-da-DAAA-DUM!" musical riff that we associate with spookiness and haunted houses. I can't give an exact date for the song, but it's likely from the late 20s; it was used in a 1930 Fleischer cartoon that featured a very early appearance by Betty Boop, before she was officially called by that name, and while she was still a anthropomorphized poodle.

Anyway, here's Screen Novelties' fun puppet show version:



And what do you know...here's another puppet show to the same tune....



And what the hey, here's the Betty Boop version as well.



I'll be back soon...make your November great!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween!

Hey, folks, whatever you're doing tonight, have a good one! I managed to get a comp ticket to the theater, so I'm having a nice cheap night. (And thankfully, I had a promising job interview on Friday so maybe some Halloween luck come my way!)

Thanks for hanging with me!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

October's Night Out at the Movies!

Cool weather seems to have finally settled in to stay, and we gather at the usual restaurant for a meal before this month's movie. Leaves are falling, at last, and we're sitting around discussing our individual plans for Halloween, and all our other trials and tribulations.

Then it's up to that shabby old movie theater....that's just remodeled a bit, which is why we're late this month....and time for our monthly movie date! October is bringing us 1935's "The Crime of Dr. Crespi"



Isn't Erich von Stroheim a blast? And yeah, it claims to be a Poe story, but really, it's very, very loosely inspired by "The Premature Burial." But this is one of the more highly-praised Poverty Row horrors, and quite a bit of fun.

And seriously, sorry to be so late this month, but last week's heat wave left me ill and unable to sleep for three days. I'm back to normal (almost) and feeling better. Still looking for work.

The show over, we head out for a final drink before going our separate ways....

Sunday, October 16, 2016

THE BEAST UNDER THE WIZARD'S BRIDGE by Brad Strickland

More supernatural hijinx in New Zebedee!

In the first novel of the Barnavelt series, mention is made of an enchanted bridge that was supposedly built by a local wizard to prevent an ancestor's ghost from coming for him. This book uses that and builds on it.

The old Wilder Creek Bridge is being torn down, and to be replaced by a new modern bridge. Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann are concerned, but won't say why. Lewis and Rose Rita begin to suspect that they're hiding something major, and begin looking into things themselves. They find out a meteor fell to earth years ago, bringing with it something unholy...

Yes, this is basically a reworking of Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" for young readers, but it works well. The titular beast isn't a colour, but a classic Cthulhoid semi-shoggoth, and scenes of Lewis and Rose Rita visiting a blasted farmstead are some of the more striking horror images that have ever featured in any of the Bellairs/Strickland canon. They actually worked on me a little, rousing memories of abandoned farms and withered fields around my childhood home.

It also has an appearance by inept witch Mrs. Jaegar, always welcome.

One of the more significant things about the Edward Gorey cover art is that it's probably the only time that Gorey illustrated Cthulhu. (The back cover is a scene from the novel where one of Uncle Jonathan's illusion shows is hijacked by other forces, and they witness the rising of a creature, presumably Cthulhu. It's memorable.)

This is a particularly recommended part of the series, because it tackles Lovecraft so effectively for younger readers.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

October at the Phantom Recital Hall!

And now it's time to kick off October with a trip to that old concert hall for a night of good music. Tonight is a special tribute to Halloween, featuring Bernard Herrmann's "Concerto Macabre," originally composed for the movie HANGOVER SQUARE.



Herrmann was a magnificent composer, who gave us two immortal music cues...the themes from PSYCHO and THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but who composed many remarkable film scores. HANGOVER SQUARE is a wee bit obscure; not many people know of it, and it's not perfect as a movie, but this concerto, composed to be performed during the film's climax, is simply amazing.

Let's go have a cup of coffee after the show, shall we?

Friday, September 30, 2016

BULLDOG DRUMMOND by "Sapper" (aka H. C. McNeile)

Capt. Hugh Drummond is bored. The Great War is over, he craves excitement, and places a tongue-in-cheek ad in the paper offering his services to anyone needing an adventurer. And then the story gets rolling....he's called in by a damsel in distress, who needs help in untangling her father from the influence of Carl Peterson, an international criminal and schemer. It proceeds from move to counter-move, with a heinous conspiracy unmasked at the end.

Published in 1920, "Bulldog Drummond" is notorious for being a shining example of the patriotic two-fisted adventurer types that populated British pulp fiction between the wars. Politically, Drummond would horrify some modern readers, as he functions largely to preserve a conservative status quo, and I've read that in later books he becomes a sort of Ayn Rand-ian Rugged Individualist. But in this book he's palatable; he's doing what he's doing for the sake of adventure and excitement, and I was impressed about halfway through when he starts to wonder if he's not in over his head and should bring in the police. He decides against it, of course (because otherwise there's no story) but that moment of reflection and self-doubt is something you don't see often, especially in macho fiction of this era.

Drummond was also famously xenophobic in later works, but in this one it's not visible aside from a certain pro-British jingoism that's par for the course in this era. There's a peripheral character who's referred to as a "Jew" but not disparagingly so; it's just that they felt it necessary to include that. Yeah, it's not the most enlightened, but it's extremely mild for those days.

It was also interesting to pick up on ways it influenced other works, and was influenced by others. Villain Peterson keeps a number of exotic poisonous animals in his house, and has a number of elaborate traps, all of which were reminiscent of Sax Rohmer's "Fu Manchu" novels....and Rohmer had been writing of the Devil Doctor since 1913, so it's likely Sapper read them. And some of the goings-on here reminded me of some of the early Saint stories by Leslie Charteris, and Simon Templar didn't appear in print until 1928, so it's likely Charteris was influenced by Sapper. (And The Saint is much more compassionate than Drummond on any day of the week...)

Overall, the story is sometimes a bit muddled and is preposterous as hell, but it is entertaining enough in a sort of idealized picture postcard England kind of way. We know from the start that Peterson is trying to bring about a Communist revolution in England and reap millions as a result (yeah, it's vague) and I actually agreed with Drummond's speech that capitalism is badly flawed but at least it works halfway, and communism simply won't work. (Liberal as I am, I do have occasional flirtations with socialism, but consider communism and Marxism to be failed philosophies [there are differences, look them up if you think they're all the same], and while capitalism has serious problems it's likely the best system we have.) I can imagine this getting more conservative and right-wing as times go by, but I enjoyed this enough to want to continue with the series.

Wordsworth Editions has an omnibus of the first four books (all of which feature Carl Peterson) and there's some ebooks out there; otherwise, check your used bookstore. McNeile died in 1937 and this work is in public domain in the US and can be downloaded for free from the usual suspects, but the rest appear to be still protected by copyright here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

THE SPECTER FROM THE MAGICIAN'S MUSEUM by Brad Strickland

More YA horror from Brad Strickland, using John Bellairs' characters. This time Lewis Barnavelt and Rose Rita Pottinger are facing a horrific situation...they are being forced to perform in the school's talent show. Talking it over with Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann, Lewis has the idea of doing a magic act, and they visit a local museum of stage magic (that's under construction) for assistance and ideas. While perusing the library there, Lewis finds guidance, and Rose Rita stumbles on a strange document, a scroll that was the last will and testament of a female magician/faux-spiritualist named Belle Frisson. Rose Rita gets a paper cut from the scroll...and the drop of blood turns into a spider!

This turns into a fun adventure with Rose Rita falling more and more under the influence of a malevolent spirit, and the two visit a strange magician's cemetery in a nearby town. (The Gorey frontispiece shows a photo of Belle Frisson and an image of the cemetery that I just love.) Belle's marker is a tall column that is capped by a stone sphere...that turns slowly, one revolution in about six weeks. (That gives me a macabre shiver.)

This delves a bit more into Rose Rita's personality, as we see her becoming withdrawn and sullen toward Lewis and the others, and Strickland smartly puts a supernatural spin on normal adolescent behavior. I will criticize it for having a few clumsily-inserted character with some of Lewis' classmates suddenly having speaking parts, but I found out that these were contest winners who had their names used in the story. Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann are fully involved, not kept on the sidelines, which makes a good change.

The final confrontation with Belle Frisson is memorable and spooky, and I wish there had been more about her background and personality; she's a bit of a cipher. But overall, it's still good fun and I enjoyed it immensely.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Autumnal Equinox at the movies!

It may be the autumnal equinox, but the air is still warm and damp with lingering summer heat and humidity. And now word comes that there may be 90 degree days in October! Who says global warming isn't real?

But it's a good night to meet for a movie, isn't it? We gather in our usual restaurant, happy for the new specials, teasing the waiter, and always leaving a good tip. Then it's up to the theater for the show!

Tonight's movie is a 1935 mysteries-of-the-orient opus, "Hong Kong Nights"!



This flick has some slight notoriety for being the subject of some Tong action when there was a kerfuffle over money due a Chinese extra, but it was all resolved peacefully. We hope.

The show's over...let's go grab a drink, shall we?

Monday, September 12, 2016

RESORTING TO MURDER, edited by Martin Edwards

This is another excellent anthology by Edwards, who's turning out to be one of the great powerhouses of traditional British mystery scholarship; he's edited a number of anthologies and written a history of them.

The running theme here is mysteries taking place on vacation, and it's quite a mixture of material. It kicks off with an old warhorse, "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" by Arthur Conan Doyle, which takes place while Sherlock Holmes is on vacation in Cornwall. The next story, "A Schoolmaster Abroad" by E. W. Hornung, is not one of that author's better works, and doesn't linger long in the memory.

Arnold Bennett's "Murder!" is an OK story, kind of a macabre comedy where we witness a murder being committed, then watch a pompous police officer botch the investigation. "The Murder on the Golf Links" by M. McDonnell Bodkin showcases his now-forgotten sleuth Paul Beck, in a murder on a golf course; not great, but a serviceable story of its time. The next tale, "The Stone Finger" by G. K. Chesterton, is subpar; it's not a Father Brown story, and the method used to hide the body is so utterly daft I wanted to hunt down Chesterton's grave to spit on it.

"The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser" by Basil Thomson is a journalistic recycling of the old "so long at the fair" urban legend. R. Austin Freeman gives us his medical sleuth Dr. Thorndike in "A Mystery of the Sand Hills," which has an unsatisfying plot but at the same time is a good (and well-written) look at Thorndike's deductive reasoning.

Then we get to the really good stuff. H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune turns up in "The Hazel Ice", investigating a murder in the Alps. It's a cracking good story, and I'm quickly becoming a fan of Bailey and Fortune. Then we have Anthony Berkeley's rarely-reprinted story "Razor Edge," which has sleuth Roger Sheringham looking into a suspicious drowning by the seaside. Then we have Leo Bruce's Sgt. Beef in the short-short "Holiday Task", looking into a strange death along the cliffs in Normandy (with a very clever twist at the end!).

A now-forgotten author, Helen Simpson had two works filmed by Hitchcock (MURDER! and UNDER CAPRICORN), and died young. She is represented in this collection by her rare story "A Posteriori," a comic tale of a tourist in France who becomes reluctantly embroiled in espionage, and has a hilariously ribald twist at the end that I don't dare spoil. "Where is Mr. Manetot?" by Phyllis Bentley is another rarity, written for an anthology of missing-persons stories. This one's about an academic who goes on an unexpected holiday and wanders into the midst of a heinous plot.

The next author, Gerald Findler, is an enigma; nothing is known of him, and there's only a couple of brief stories and a pamphlet credited to him. But "The House of Screams" packs a whallop, a haunted-house story which conceals an ingenious murder. And the anthology wraps up with Michael Gilbert's "Cousin Once Removed," a tale of murder with an ironic twist.

Despite a sluggish start, and some stuff you've seen before, this is still a superior anthology and a great way to sample some of the golden age's best mystery writers. Check it out!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A September Evening at the Phantom Cabaret!

September so far is warm and stuffy, and while the days are still like we're in the depths of summer, at least the nights are longer and more relaxed.

Tonight, we're indulging in an evening out at that cabaret in town. We haven't been in for a while; they haven't booked any acts that appeal to us, and that one band we saw there was a disaster. But we're assured by the manager that they're getting things back on track. After a light supper, we gather around a comfortable table, and the manager sends out a complimentary bottle of cava, so we're all in a good mood.

And the act is great! Just the thing for a meditative September night....



We have a great time, and promise to return soon....

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

THE DOOM OF THE HAUNTED OPERA by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

Another Bellairs/Strickland "posthumous collaboration", although I'm strongly of the opinion that this is all Strickland. After this one, the covers would site, "John Bellairs' Lewis Barnavelt in (book title) by Brad Strickland."

Lewis and Rose Rita are doing a project on local history and remember stories of an abandoned opera house over some downtown shops. (Apparently Bellairs based this on a real abandoned theater in his childhood home town.) They ask nicely and are let in to look around, when Lewis stumbles on the score of an opera, hidden in a decayed piano, and is warned away by a ghost. Still, they take the opera away to show their teachers, who are suitably impressed. Meanwhile, Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann go off to Florida to attend a friend's funeral and wrap up his affairs...not coincidentally, their old friend was a wizard.

When a tune from the opera is played at a PTA meeting, a man claiming to be the composer's son shows up, and gets everyone worked up into a frenzy to get the opera produced. Lewis and Rose Rita, who distrust the man, go on a fact-finding mission and realize the town is surrounded by an impenetrable fog cloud, and no communications can go in or out. They attempt to find members of the county magician's society (who are real wizards and witches), only to find their houses gone and the neighbors having no memory of them. And Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Z are away in Florida. All alone, the two have to face a man who wants to become the King of the Dead.

This is good fun. The requisite thrills and chills are all there, as well as some good light humor. There's a great scene in the town cemetery where Lewis and Rose Rita are menaced by a sort of demonic guardian statue that can only move when nobody's looking at it, and which becomes more and more grotesque every time they see it. And this book introduces two fun supporting characters: Rose Rita's Grandpa Galway, a repository of local history and tinkerer, and Mildred Jaeger, a sensible, grounded would-be witch who simply lacks magical talent, but has a lot of knowledge.

Again, the kids are on their own, but this time there's a good reason as they're physically cut off. None of the old "Oh, we can't tell them because they'll hate us!" stuff.

This is a good YA horror programmer, not groundbreaking, but a fun read.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Cool August Night at the Movies!

A front moved through, and the constant heat and humidity that has hung over us for the past month has finally dissipated. There's a cool nip in the air as we assemble at our favorite restaurant and share a meal as we talk about our adventures.

After we're done....and Viola and Rose, thanks for picking up my tab....and we head up the street to that old theater. The young lady at the refreshment stand actually gives us a smile, and the fellow with the biceps and tattoos greets us warmly as he takes our tickets.

Tonight's movie is the 1935 semi-classic CONDEMNED TO LIVE.



With its unique twist on the vampire theme (a character being born a vampire due to a prenatal influence), its mannered dialogue and stately pace, and its Mittel-European setting, CONDEMNED TO LIVE is considered by many to be a forerunner to Hammer Films' horror output. It's certainly different from other Poverty-Row shockers of the period.

Show's over...let's all have a drink, shall we? You guys go ahead....the ticket-taker and I will be along in a minute or two.....

Sunday, August 14, 2016

THE SKELETON CLOSET OF JULES DE GRANDIN by Seabury Quinn


The next in the Jules de Grandin series, and the cover is amusing as it's classified as "science fiction" and the picture has a monster in a spacesuit...and of course, there's no space aliens in it.

This is more fun from Grandin, and this was actually the first Grandin volume I ever picked up, I bought it on a family vacation as a teen and devoured it, and went bonkers trying to find the rest. As an adult, I finally finished the set with the help of Ebay.

This is more mature Quinn, and the themes could be quite more mature as well. I was surprised reading this as a teen, and even in comparison with the other books, it's a bit eyebrow-raising. There are some blatant sexual horrors here, a bit unusual for this genre. Something so sexual was usually reserved for the Spicy pulps (which dealt with a lot of suggestion, and girls running around naked) and the weird-menace subgenre (which featured sadomasochistic themes and male characters being drugged, hypnotized, or otherwise coerced into bizarre and violent BDSM situations).

So, to go down the stories...

"The Drums of Damballah" is a tale of a voodoo cult practicing in the midst of their small New Jersey town. It's pretty straightforward; they find out a local girl is part of a cult, she gets killed, then a baby is kidnapped, and they follow clues to the cult's ceremony. It's all pretty mundane, with no supernatural content. There is a nice bit at the end when Grandin compassionately allows a woman to grieve her dead son, even though they were both parts of the cult, as he feels a mother's grief is universal and should be honored.

"The Doom of the House of Phipps" involves a family curse, in which the men of an old New England family die with blood on their lips when their first born is delivered, and no Phipps man ever beholds his firstborn child. The source of the curse is a French Catholic girl whom a Phipps ancestor took as a bond-maid, and on whom the ancestor, a stern Puritan, fathered a child. Really, the cause of the curse is good old-fashioned Puritan hypocrisy! Thankfully, the last Phipps man finds a woman who is able to dismiss the curse. (This will occur later in the book...a man is saved from a dire supernatural fate by the courage of a woman who loves him.)

"Dust of Egypt" is intriguing. A brother and sister move into the house of a departed uncle, who was a collector of Egyptian antiquities. A series of strange manifestations occur, and the brother is in bad shape...and while it's not a revived mummy, it's just as bad. In this case, the real root of the problem is the late uncle's thought patterns and belief in the curses of the old tombs...which, really, can be a valid source of concern. Half the time, it's the demons of our minds that are the biggest menace.

"The Brain-Thief" really reflects small-town morality of the day. A man abandons his wife, and a woman abandons her husband, to marry. After a year of facing small-town scorn, suddenly the man returns to his ex-wife's house as if he's coming home from work, and seems to have forgotten the past year. He's horrified to find a new woman in his bed and a baby he doesn't recognize. The wife is hurt and confused, and then seems to "come to" and seek her former husband. The menace? A Hindu victim of racism, who's using his psychic mind-control gifts to disrupt the lives of wealthy Westerners. Again, a sexual note, the revelation that one has been forced and manipulated into infidelity.

"The Bride of Dewer" is the pinnacle of the sexual horrors here. A newlywed couple's honeymoon is disrupted by a strange, supernatural visitor, and husband reveals that his family's men are always told they can't marry. The menace here is Quinn's best, a pagan demon demanding droit du seigneur with any woman the men of the house marry. It's a harrowing concept, that simply marrying someone opens you up to rape by a supernatural monster...but finally, with some help, the wife's courage saves the day.

"Daughter of the Moonlight" is a lesser tale, and a bit disjointed, almost as if it were two tales merged into one. A young woman of Harrisonville society brings disaster to all around her, and she seems to be a witch of some sort, a born witch. It winds up with a scene reminiscent of Byron's fragment of a vampire tale; Quinn seems to have been very well-read.

It's a fun collection, and the sexual horrors contained within will give you a very different perspective on pulp fiction horrors. Like all the de Grandin stories, this is highly recommended.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

August in the Phantom Recital Hall

It's a hot night in early August, and we're taking advantage of a free evening out at that lovely old concert hall we like. They're unveiling their new, smaller-scale recital hall for chamber works or experimental pieces.

We're in lighter versions of our bohemian finery, and meet after a light meal to hear some lovely music. A highlight of tonight's program is a chamber work for two violins, Telemann's "Gulliver Suite," inspired by the Swift classic. It's in five movements...watch for the second one, "Lilliput," which is less than 30 seconds long...



Sorry I'm a little late this month...I've been focused on job-hunting. I've been throwing applications left and right, and waiting for responses, so hopefully something will fall into place soon.

Show's over...let's hit that bar over there for a cool drink, shall we?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE VENGEANCE OF THE WITCH-FINDER by John Bellairs and Brad Strickland

"By John Bellairs, Completed by Brad Strickland," claims this book's cover and title page, but I'm inclined to believe it's mostly Strickland. That's not entirely bad.

Set concurrent with the previous book, THE GHOST IN THE MIRROR, this depicts Lewis' adventures in Europe with his uncle. They go to England first, to visit a cousin who lives in the ancestral mansion in the British countryside. Lewis is intrigued by a maze on the property, and moved by the poverty of his cousin, decides to explore and find a possible treasure within. He's assisted by Bertie Goodring, the son of the his cousin's housekeeper, who is blind after being struck by a beam during the Blitz. (The book touches on some of the realities of life in postwar Britain, where rationing was still in force.) They find a hidden area in the maze (as seen on the cover above) and unleash something invisible and hostile. Lewis and his uncle continue to journey through Europe, and when they return to Barnavelt Manor for a visit before returning to the US, they find things there to be strange and sinister....

It borrows elements from several sources, including M. R. James' "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance," Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Musgrave Ritual," and the real story of Matthew Hopkins. Bellairs/Strickland takes jabs at adult hypocrisy. Strickland was good at characterization and with this book it really starts to become a feature of the series.

It's got some good atmosphere in the descriptions of the maze and the old house. However, in the end this is one of my less favorite books in the series. One of the antagonists just shows up, supposedly "summoned" but summoned offstage. And Lewis is terrified of talking to his uncle about his experience in the maze, which presses credibility. Uncle Jonathan has been extremely understanding of Lewis' involvement with the supernatural, and Lewis should have got over his fear long before now. The way Lewis keeps his secret just doesn't ring true and seems more a plot device than anything else.

Still, it's a decent entertainment, and the hardcover is worth getting for the Gorey cover.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A July Night at the Movies!

Oh lawdy, it's been hot lately! We're all dragging as we exit the restaurant after a light meal (and I'm grateful for Mark picking up the tab for me...I'll pay you back, I promise....). The heat and humidity are very oppressive, and it's only to get worse over the weekend.

Thankfully the theater is air-conditioned, the drinks are cold, and the ticket-taker has a new tattoo on those impressive biceps. We sink into our seats, stretching our legs, as the show starts.

Tonight's movie is the 1935 thriller "One Frightened Night"!



"One Frightened Night" is one of the more successful feature films from Mascot, a studio normally associated with low-budget serials, and the script was based on a preliminary treatment by Stuart Palmer, the author of the Hildegarde Withers mystery series.

Show's over! After a few friendly flirtations with the ticket-taker and the refreshment counter staff, we stagger out into the sultry night...let's go get something cold again....

Friday, July 15, 2016

Personal Note for July

It's a scorching hot summer here in Baltimore, and just as I was starting to get things better arranged for me, I dealt a sharp blow from an unexpected direction; I lost my job. I'd had a sneaking suspicion that it might happen, but really thought I could hang on until I found something else, and I was in the process of starting up a job hunt anyway. I'd been unhappy

Thankfully, I have resources for assistance, including some professional resume help, and a lot of friends in the area willing to lend a hand, for which I am truly thankful. And I have the library and my own enormous collection of books (really, I am almost a compulsive book-buyer). And really, what sorts of adventures await me as I look for a new job?

NIGHT SHIVERS; THE GHOST STORIES OF J. H. RIDDELL

Here's another collection from Wordsworth Editions, this collects a good chunk of Mrs. Riddell's short supernatural fiction. "The Uninhabited House," a novella, was already reviewed here a few years ago, so thankfully I will skip it here. This was a lengthy volume, 449 pages, and it took me forever to get through.

Mrs. Riddell has her strengths and weaknesses; she can be flowery and overly sentimental, but she's also good about giving her characters real economic lives and dealing with the struggles of the middle class. A lot of her haunted-house tales also deal with the notion of haunted houses as economic liabilities; they seem to be more about haunts from a real-estate perspective.

"Nut Bush Farm" deals with hauntings at a rural farm, a struggling middle-class man seeks a quiet country retreat, but finds it haunted by the ghost of a former owner. "The Open Door" deals with a desperate young man jumping at a chance to solve a haunting in a baronial mansion...so it can be sold or inhabited. It all ends up with a door that can't be shut, a re-enacted murder, and a missing will.

"The Last of Squire Ennismore" is a folktale, basically, of a wicked noble being carried off by the devil. "A Strange Christmas Game" is a brief tale of an old murder being solved by ghostly manifestations. A young man, kicked out by his father, resorts to staying in a haunted house in "The Old House in Vauxhall Walk," much to his economic benefit. "Sandy the Tinker" deals with ghosts and approaching doom.

"Forewarned, Forearmed," deals with prophetic dreams, but also has memorable atmosphere. "Hertford O'Donnell's Warning" is a romantic tale of visions and destiny. "Walnut-Tree House" has more romance and more missing wills. "Old Mrs. Jones" was a bit odd...a ghost story that might not actually be a ghost story, with a milieu of a boarding-house and middle-class characters.

"Why Dr. Cray Left Southam" deals more with psychic visions than ghosts, with a mortal woman having visions (maybe) of a murdered woman (maybe). It's actually a bit vague and unresolved, which a lot left up to the reader to decide, which actually makes it a very forward-thinking and modern work. While I wasn't enthused about the plot, I was impressed by its literary merit.

"Conn Kilrea" has an Irish officer having visions and ghostly visitations (because that's what happens when you're Irish, it seems), and "Diarmid Chittock's Story" is a tale of murder being revealed by the supernatural. And "A Terrible Vengeance" is nasty tale of a murdered woman who seeks spectral vengeance, but it's also boosted by some very good characterizations, including some very nasty people.

It's got good stories in it, but it's a bit of a slog. There's some repetition, and the style can drag, and it's a lot of Riddell to take in. There were many times when I picked it up, meaning to read it over lunch in the break room, or the like, but found myself unwilling to do it. This is something to have on hand by your reading chair for the occasional dip, rather than try to make all the way through.

Still, it's worth it for a glimpse into Mrs. Riddell's middle-class Victorian world, and also for some of her more modern tales. She ranges from the folkloric to the almost avant-garde nature of "Why Dr. Cray Left Southam." So yeah, worth purchasing if you like Victoriana.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

THE GHOST IN THE MIRROR by John Bellairs and Brad Strickland

John Bellairs died in 1991, but his books were continued by author Brad Strickland. This book was a bit of a surprise as we were to believe the Barnavelt series ended in 1976...but in 1993 it was resurrected, and ran for quite a while.

It's the summer of 1951. Lewis and Uncle Jonathan have taken off for Europe, and Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmermann were supposed to go with them, but Rose Rita broke her leg and can't travel, so Mrs. Z is staying home with her. Mrs. Z is having her own issues; she's experiencing weird phenomena in her house, and a ghostly figure in an old mirror seems to be calling for her.

Soon all is revealed. Mrs. Z does miss her magic powers, lost back in THE FIGURE IN THE SHADOWS, and while she was fine without them for a while, she misses them. The mirror ghost is the woman who originally taught her magic, and is offering her a chance to get her powers back if she "rights a great wrong." Mrs. Z must travel to the town of Stonebridge, PA, where her teacher, Granny Weatherbee, lived, and Rose Rita, now released from her cast, goes with her.

Not sure what wrong must be righted, or how, they travel to Pennsylvania...and when they exit a tunnel through the mountains, suddenly find themselves in a snowbound landscape, with no road. They hide their car and get a lift from a passing farm family, the Weisses, in their horse-drawn wagon, and then realize it's 1828! Young daughter Hilda is Granny Weatherbee as a young girl, and the family is beset with problems, including being suspected for witchcraft by the locals!

The jacket claims this book was "completed" by Strickland, but I've heard that Bellairs left behind only a bare outline that had to be fleshed out fairly significantly. Strickland does a decent job. His descriptions of their travels don't capture the feel of small-town America the way Bellairs could, but he did gothicism well. He handles the historic setting OK (there are a few times when it just didn't seem quite right) but the Pennsylvania Dutch milieu is interesting, and the inclusion of some of the folk magic of the area is a plus.The villain is appropriately nasty, and has an OK motivation. There's some real menace at work here, and there's a harrowing dream scene and a great nasty ending for the villain.

In the end, Mrs. Z does get her powers back, which is good, because the series would carry on for a while yet. The original hardcover also has a great cover and frontispiece by Edward Gorey. Strickland isn't Bellairs, but he had his own strengths and would carry the Bellairs brand for a number of years to come.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Time for the Phantom Fireworks!

Independence Day this year is annoying. It rains on and off, and when it's off, it's fiendishly hot and humid. But thankfully, a friend has a place with a good view, so we can seal ourselves inside, have a drink, and watch the fireworks in air-conditioned comfort.

And hey, why not put a little music on while enjoying the show? Our host peruses his collection and pulls out a few pieces, including this delightful piece from Debussy.



This is the second of a three-part piece; the first is "Nuages" (Clouds), and the third is "Sirens." The series was inspired by Whistler's "Nocturne" series of paintings.

I suspect this one inspired the "Fetes" nocturne...

I'm posting this one because I like it. I once had the idle thought of having this reproduced on a huge scale on a bedroom wall. It still tempts me.

The fireworks are over, but we linger for a while, waiting for the traffic to ease, enjoying a last drink and some more music. Another Independence Day come and gone.....

Saturday, June 25, 2016

BAUDELAIRE'S REVENGE by Bob van Laerhoven

This was a random find at the library, but I found it enjoyable.

It's 1870. Paris is in turmoil, with the Franco-Prussian War and the populace's attempts to distract themselves from what seems like inevitable doom. Commissioner Lefevre, a lover of poetry and carnal pleasures, investigates a gruesome murder in a brothel, and finds the killer has left behind a note...which is a quote from Baudelaire, and seemingly in the poet's handwriting. But the poet has been dead for three years! Has he risen from the grave?

More murders ensue, with some gruesome mutilations as well. What is the point? What is the goal of the murderer? There's lots of historical detail here, and we also start seeing things from the killer's point of view, but it's obvious it's an unreliable narrator here, and it's not until the end that we know what their motivation is, and the nature of their secrets.

It's not bad at all, but it has its weaknesses. From the start I knew a certain character was going to be more than they seemed and would be a traitor. Author van Laerhoven seems to push certain ideas and concepts almost too much. The sexual content is somewhat explicit and often quite perverse. (Even from my jaded viewpoint, it was a bit much.) There's occasional blips of racism but they're always in the context of a first-person narrative so they can be forgiven for being the viewpoint of a person of the time...and a bad person at that.

The big problem for me was that it was a bit too reminiscent of another work I'd read years ago, that involved a similar plot device with another famous author. (NEVERMORE, by Harold Schechter, if you must know.) I'm sure it was a coincidence but it was a bit of a letdown.

Still, it's Paris, it's decadent, and it's got an appealing character in Commissioner Lefevre, and I almost wish van Laerhoven would bring him back. We'll see about that.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Sultry June Night at the Movies!

We stumble into the theater, thanking whatever gods are listening for air conditioning. They just had a new system put in, obviously at the expense of a coat of paint, but hey, priorities. It got to over 100 today, and even though the sun's down, it's still oppressive out there.

Cold drinks at the refreshment stand! Hallelujah! And the ticket-taker with the biceps and tattoos is greeting us with a wink and a smile. Pardon me, he and I have something to discuss....

OK, I'm back. Get settled in, take a sip of something cold. We've got a fun program tonight.

We're having a silent short to kick off the show...here's a 1919 short, "The Haunted Curiosity Shop."



And then our feature presentation, the 1935 crime drama "Circumstantial Evidence."



Although not directly based on the Lindbergh case, "Circumstantial Evidence" does take a few cues from it, and reflects the tone of the time, when many were pondering the idea of someone being convicted (like Bruno Hauptmann) solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. It's an interesting little time capsule of a film.

OK, show's over...let's go get another cold drink, shall we?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

More Bellairs: THE LETTER, THE WITCH, AND THE RING

Lewis Barnavelt has gone off to Boy Scout camp for the summer, and his best friend Rose Rita Pottinger is left at home feeling resentful. She's also turning into a teenager, and dealing with enormously ambivalent feelings about growing up.

Her friend, the good witch Mrs. Zimmermann, offers to take Rose Rita with her on a trip to visit a farmhouse she inherited from an eccentric cousin, who claimed in a letter to have found a magic ring while digging in a nearby field. They drive up there, encounter an unfriendly neighbor with a grudge against Mrs. Z, and go to the house to find the ring stolen.

They continue on a long rambling holiday around Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but eerie happenings keep popping up, and at one point Mrs. Z becomes mysteriously ill. They head back to the house...and then Mrs. Z disappears, and Rose Rita must figure things out on her own.

THE LETTER, THE WITCH, AND THE RING (1976) is a bit different for Bellairs; this time he was seriously trying to explore Rose Rita's emotions and feelings about getting older. I'm not sure it always rings true, but it's good he was stretching himself.

The villain, Gert Biggers, is probably Bellairs' most sympathetic villain; she's someone who has led a hard life and wishes for a fresh start. Too bad she's consumed with bitterness and resentment, and a psycho to boot. There's some interesting background to Mrs. Zimmermann, and she also presents a good example of self-acceptance as she adjusts to life without her powers, which were lost in the last book.

There's some good atmosphere here, with the empty farmhouse and the storm-tossed fields, but sometimes the book drags a little with the descriptions of them driving around small-town Michigan. Rose Rita makes a new friend with local farmgirl Aggie Sipes, who's kind of interesting, but she never appears again.

In the "About the Author" bit at the end, it's claimed this is the final volume of the Barnavelt trilogy, but many years later the series was continued. More about that later....

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

June at the Phantom Concert Hall!

We're off to that old concert hall again this month; the city orchestra has a special guest violinist and he's going to show off tonight by performing Pablo de Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen."



Pablo Martin Meliton de Sarasate y Navascues was born in Pamplona, Spain, in 1844. He was a child prodigy on the violin and had a long, successful career as a violinist and composer. He composed mainly to show off his own amazing technique, and his works aren't for amateurs.

Zigeunerweisen is Sarasate's most popular piece, and is regarded these days as a test of a violinist's ability. Enjoy it!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

THE FIGURE IN THE SHADOWS by John Bellairs

It's 1949, the autumn after the events in THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. Lewis Barnavelt has a new best friend, Rose Rita Pottinger. He also has a bully problem, in the form of tough Woody Mingo, who wants to make Lewis miserable.

Trying to cheer Lewis up after an encounter with Woody, Uncle Jonathan opens up Grandpa Barnavelt's trunk, containing things from his Civil War days, including a "lucky" coin that he won in a poker game, and was wounded over. Lewis hangs on to the coin, hoping in some vague way it will bring him luck. However, in the night he hears a piece of mail being delivered; puzzled, he goes down into the hall and finds a postcard with his name on it, and a single word: "Venio," which Lewis knows means "I come." The card quickly vanishes.

Later, Lewis and Rose Rita, poking around in Uncle Jonathan's library, finds Mrs. Zimmermann's doctoral dissertation, on magical amulets. She includes a prayer/spell that will sense a powerful amulet, and Lewis uses it to test the lucky coin...and it jumps in his hand. And things get stranger from there....

THE FIGURE IN THE SHADOWS (1975) is a decent sequel to HOUSE, and goes more into Lewis' personal problems than before. Rose Rita is an entertaining character and is well drawn; she will stick around for the rest of the series and take center stage a few times. It's a decent story, the sort of thing that would become fairly cliched in various media (bullied kid turns to magic to defend self, with horrific results), and Bellairs would recycle the concept later in another series.

It has some problems, though. There's a lot of back story around the amulet and the mysterious ghost that stalks Lewis that comes out at the end, and it's mostly conjecture on the part of the other characters. It would have been better if there had been clearer clues to what was going on and identity of the spirit. The situation with Woody Mingo is never resolved, which reflects real life, but he also never shows up again in the series. Mrs. Zimmermann loses her powers after a magical duel with the spirit....how? How did it become so powerful when she could battle Selenna Izzard and come out on top? Bellairs doesn't always seem to have a clear idea of how his universe's magic works. And I really disliked how someone JUST HAPPENS to have a magic item in their pocket that is just the right thing to use against the spirit. And although it's given to one of the characters, they never use it again and it's forgotten about. (That is a weakness with Bellairs...in some of his other books, characters end up with powerful items by the end that seem to vanish between books and never show up again.)

Still, it's a fun read, with some chilly atmosphere, as it mostly takes place in winter. Good for when the summer heat gets to you.

Monday, May 23, 2016

May's Night Out at the Cinema!

It's been a rainy, dreary spring; the clear days are lovely but they're few and far between. For weeks at a time it's been chilly and drizzly. We shut ourselves away from the dank evening in that familiar old restaurant, bemoaning this disappointing season and how mold and mildew are everywhere.

Eventually, we make our way up the street to that old movie theater. That guy with the biceps and tattoos is taking tickets again, and the girl at the refreshment counter has a nice new dye job; that metallic green suits her, actually.

Tonight's show is a Canadian film from 1935, Secrets of Chinatown!



When the show's over, we slowly file out, chuckling among ourselves. It's not the best film ever, but it is fun to sit back with an oldie like this and just relax and immerse ourselves.

You all go ahead to the cafe for a drink....I need to have a word with the ticket-taker....I'll catch up....

Sunday, May 15, 2016

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS by John Bellairs

This is an old favorite from my childhood, and one of the works that set me on the path I am on today.

It's the summer of 1948. Newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his uncle Jonathan in the town of New Zebedee, MI (based on the author's childhood memories of Marshall, MI, and some touches of his then-home of Haverhill, MA). Lewis notices some strange behavior from his uncle and his neighbor, the elderly Mrs. Zimmermann. Finally, the truth comes out: Uncle Jonathan is a wizard, although not a very powerful one. Mrs. Zimmermann is a powerful witch, although a good one, and they've been trying to find the source of a strange ticking in the walls of the house, suspecting it's something left behind by the house's former owner, an evil sorcerer named Isaac Izard.

Lewis has problems of his own at school; he's fat and bookish, and not very athletic, but he tries. He's also not very popular, but ends up befriending Tarby Corrigan, a popular athletic kid who can't participate in any games because of a broken arm. They start to drift apart, though, as Tarby's arm heals. Lewis, attempting to impress Tarby, claims he can raise the dead, and the two meet on Halloween night to raise a spirit in the town cemetery.

The experiment doesn't go as planned, and Lewis finds himself sitting on a painful secret, afraid to tell anyone. Meanwhile, the ticking in the walls grows louder, a mysterious woman moves in across the street, eerie happenings occur, and Lewis stumbles on clues indicating that Isaac Izard had plotted to destroy the world....

It's horror for younger readers, sure, but it's a fun and atmospheric read. The town is described lovingly, and the characters are appealingly human. Lewis' problems with bullies and a friend who grows increasingly distant and dismissive rang true for me as a kid. It's also got great illustrations by Edward Gorey (see the cover above). Gorey would end up supplying covers and frontispieces for most of Bellairs' works over the years, to the point that the two are almost inextricably linked in my mind. Lewis and his family and friends would appear in a full dozen works, and Bellairs also had two other series running along the same lines, one starring Anthony Monday and set in small-town Minnesota, and another starring Johnny Dixon and set in small-town Massachusetts.

It's not all dark and grim; there's quite a bit of humor on display, and Bellairs was obviously an educated man. Uncle Johnathan's name, Jonathan Van Olden Barnavelt, is lifted from an Elizabethan tragedy. Mrs. Zimmermann is based on Wisconsin poet Mary Zimmermann, whom Bellairs had befriended many years before. There are many literary in-jokes you'll come across here and there in Bellairs' books.

Reading it as an adult, there were a few things that jumped to my attention. There's a few supernatural occurrences that don't seem to make a lot of sense, but could be sendings from the villain to demoralize Lewis. (Mainly, the Aunt Mattie scene.) Bellairs describes a chestnut tree in Uncle Johnathan's front yard, an oddity considering the chestnut blight wiped out the chestnut in most of the country starting in 1904. And at the end, the solution to the mystery is found in a secret passage....which, to the best of my recall, is never mentioned again in the series.

Still, despite a few flaws, it's a quick, entertaining read. Bellairs had intended Uncle Jonathan to be the main character and for it to be an adult work, but there wasn't a market for it, and Bellairs was talked into rewriting it as a book for young readers, and it was an unqualified success and won multiple awards when it was first published in 1973. Seek it out...although later verions have a new cover, they at least preserved the Gorey illustrations inside, even for the Kindle version. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 9, 2016

A May Evening at the Phantom Pub

We're down by that little pub near the harbor again. We've found the company congenial, the drinks affordable, and the entertainment superior. The regulars may seem a bit rough but they're always welcoming and friendly to us when we come.

Tonight, the singers are doing a nice little murder ballad...



"Young Hunting" is an old ballad, possibly from the 18th century, and most likely Scottish. It has numerous variants, and is known as "Henry Lee", "Earl Richard," and "The Proud Girl," among other names. Nick Cave recorded it on his album "Murder Ballads," but I prefer the more stripped-down, traditional version we have here.

So...on with another springtime...and another sinister summer awaits....

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Happy Walpurgisnacht! And Happy Eighth Birthday to Us!

And we're back! Actually, my internet problems were quickly resolved, but I took advantage of the break to take it easy for a bit. Work has been taking a lot out of me and I'm pondering job-hunting. At the end of the day, I'm horribly drained and can't focus on reading or blogging.

But it's Walpurgisnacht, I'm getting ready to head off to a friend's birthday party...and said friend is a magician, so this promises to be interesting.

Have a good one, folks!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Argh!

I may be gone for a bit, folks....my internet connection at home is gone. I suspect a burned-out router, and I need to call Verizon....and it's just when Verizon employees are on strike. This could be a mess. My apologies, dear readers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

April at the Phantom Concert Hall!

So we're off to that refurbished old concert hall yet again. The local orchestra is putting on a program of some fairly offbeat music. We hear some bits by lesser-known composers, and a few obscure pieces by well-known composers. Including this interesting piece by Rachmaninov...



It's a lovely piece, with undercurrents of darkness and menace that make for a slightly unsettling listening experience. It's not something easily

Afterward, it's down the street for a drink and light supper at a small restaurant down the street...Portuguese, you say? Sounds good....


Monday, March 28, 2016

Tales of Hoffmann: Signor Formica

Over the holiday weekend, I had time to finish a Hoffmann tale! "Signor Formica" is pretty interesting, but not from the usual perspectives.

And no, it's not about countertops.

"Signor Formica" tells a purportedly true adventure of Baroque-era painter Salvator Rosa, who was also a printmaker and poet, and had a remarkable life full of adventure. (That's a self-portrait above.) The story begins approximately in 1649, when Rosa returns to Rome after various adventures in Naples, including rumors of being involved with a group of banditti.

Rosa encounters some strange folk, including the unscrupulous Dr. Splendiano Accoramboni (called the "Pyramid Doctor" for his peculiar headwear), who treats ill artists in hopes of reaping paintings as payment...and only to let them die. Rosa manages to survive and send the doctor on his way, then befriends Antonio, a young barber/surgeon who's also an aspiring painter. Rosa praises a painting of Antonio's that depicts the Magdalen in a new and interesting way, and divines that it's a girl that Antonio is in love with. And of course, she's the ward of a forbidding old man, Pasquale Capuzzi di Senigaglia, a pretentious dandy who fancies himself a great composer and singer, but who is truly execrable. And Signore Pasquale has two great friends, a dwarf named Pitichinacchio and the aforementioned Pyramid Doctor.

The rest of the story goes into how Rosa cons and tricks Capuzzi and his friends, gets the lovers together, and how justice serves all.

It's not supernatural at all, but it's a good read. There's some meditating on art that doesn't overwhelm the story, and lots of funny action with plot and counterplot with Rosa and Antonio on one size and Capuzzi and his friends on the other. And while reading this, I kept thinking what a great comic opera or operetta it would make. And there's scenes set in the opera house that just call out for a talented composer to have fun composing bad music. (The "Signor Formica" of the title is an opera singer who seems to set out especially to communicate with, or embarrass, Capuzzi, and is one of the big players of the story.)

To wrap up, this is hardly the core of D&C material, but it's still a fun read that begs for a spirited adaptation somewhere along the line. It's also an intriguing early entry into the "fictional adventures of a real-life person" genre that we see so often today. So, not for everyone, but for those in need of a chuckle or two, check it out.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Quick Personal Note

I haven't been posting much lately. It's a busy season at work and it's taking a lot out of me this year, and when I am home and have time to read I've been reading slowly. And on my laptop I've had problems with a persistent browser hijacker that crashes my Firefox and also tries to hijack Chrome. Grrr. I'm experimenting with various possible ways of handling it. Right now I just zapped all my extensions on FF and seeing how that works out. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of my browser extensions may be the problem.

When I do go out, I don't want to think about anything and just enjoy myself. I recently saw a performance by the Orlando-based troupe Phantasmagoria, called "Wicked Little Tales," in which they interpreted various stories (including "The Raven," Dickens' "Captain Murderer," and others, culminating in a chillingly dark rendition of "The Jabberwock"). It was an excellent evening and I strongly recommend them if they're in your town, or if you're in Orlando.

I'm going to take it easy for the rest of month, blog-wise. I'll continue reading and sampling things and if I get something good and can get my browser to work long enough to let me post it, I'll get it up. But don't be surprised if you don't hear anything from me for a couple of weeks....

Monday, March 7, 2016

March at the Phantom Opera House!

Tonight we're all dolled up in our vintage and bohemian finery...we're going to the opera!

The show is that old warhorse "Carmen," but it's effectively done, as you can see here...



"Carmen," despite its overfamiliarity, has a ton of great music, and when done right has a load of atmosphere. It can also be seen as a precursor to film noir, with its tale of a good man led astray by a heartless, manipulative woman. The song above sets things in motion...she warns them all that she's a danger, but still tempts and coaxes Don Jose to self-destruction.

Just think...where would actresses like Lizabeth Scott and Peggy Cummins be without Carmen?

Show's over...let's go back to my place for a bite, shall we?

Monday, February 29, 2016

BEAST IN VIEW by Margaret Millar

Wealthy, neurotic spinster Helen Clarvoe lives alone in a hotel suite in Los Angeles. She's begun to receive harassing phone calls from an Evelyn Merrick, phone calls that frighten her. She's estranged from her family since her father died, so she calls up Paul Blackshear, an investment banker who had dealings with her father, to find out what's going on.

Beast in View was first published in 1955 and won the Edgar award for Best Novel. It's easy to see why; this isn't a traditional mystery novel but a great, trendsetting  psychological suspense work. It takes us from the swank home of the Clarvoes to a pornographer's studio, a massage parlor, and elsewhere. Blackshear starts to fall for Helen, seeing her as someone who needs protection. Evelyn Merrick goes around, harassing people by telling the dirtiest secrets of those close to them, and two deaths occur before Blackshear finally tracks her down and discovers her devastating secret.

As fun reading as this is, there are some drawbacks. One is that the central concept is a bit hackneyed now and experienced readers will catch on quickly. Some of the psychology is a bit outdated; a gay character is handled in a rather odd manner, both cliched and somewhat sympathetic when you realize he's a seriously screwed-up person overall. But we're given looks into the heads of various characters, which makes for good reading. Millar knew human nature, that's for sure.

Millar (1915-1994) was a Canadian-born suspense writer who is criminally overlooked today. (Her husband, Kenneth Millar, wrote highly-regarded hard-boiled novels as Ross McDonald and is still in print. Shameful sexism, I say.) But her books are being rereleased in ebook formats and you can occasionally come across them in libraries and used book stores. BIV was filmed as an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" but little else of her work was filmed; a movie of another novel, The Iron Gates, was planned with Bette Davis in the lead, but Davis rejected the role as her character would be gone for the last third of the film, and the project died.

Beast in View is out there as an ebook and in used copies. Go find it, folks. This is cracking good reading.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A (late) February Night at the Cinema

We eschewed our normal mid-month movie date as it was Valentine's Day, and are meeting instead tonight. V-Day is such a terrible night for a friendly get-together; restaurants all have couples' specials, movie theaters are full of cooing couples, and sometimes you can't stand the bars and cafes.

Tonight is pleasant; rain is melting the snow, the air is warm with the promise of spring, and we're enjoying a good meal at our favorite place, where they're happy to see us, couples be damned.

After dinner, we wander up the street to that slightly shabby old movie house for the latest old chiller...1935's A SHOT IN THE DARK!



After the show, it's off to our favorite cafe, thankfully now devoid of cardboard hearts...

Saturday, February 20, 2016

THE CRAZY CORNER by Jean Richepin

Here's a real treasure house!

Jean Richepin (1849-1926) was a contributor to the legendary Grand Guignol and to the conte cruel literature of fin-de-siecle France, but his relentless ghoulishness set him apart from the rest, who normally wallowed in mere irony. This collection, translated by Brian Stableford, brings together two of Richepin's short-story collections, with a sprinkling of his other works.

It starts off subtly, with the story "Lilith," in which two students observe a neighbor's strange ritual and slowly piece together a vague idea of a terrible tragedy that might be behind it. It becomes more and more gruesome...in "The Clock" an old man attempts to repair a town's tower clock, but only can do so at a terrible price. Some, like "The Enemy" and "A Duel of Souls," deal with madness and obsession. "The City of Gems" look at the line between madness and sanity, and how seemingly sane people can be coaxed into mad beliefs. Some deal with sexuality, like "Booglottism," in which a man is coaxed into a sexual encounter with a woman who keeps her face hidden....and later find a secret, not quite horrible, but chilling and a bit disgusting. Or "The Ugly Sisters," of two old women who live in a small town....who have a somewhat surprising secret. There's femmes fatale, feckless men, criminals, and sex at its most destructive. One faintly appalling story, "La Morillonne," deals with a beautiful woman who consistently gives birth to monstrously deformed children....and it's her livelihood. And the nasty "Jeroboam," a tale of human deception and manipulation that reads like something from a Jim Thompson tale. There's even a novella, "In Less Time Than It Takes to Write," about a callow youth's adventures in the Paris underworld.

Perhaps the most harrowing tale is "Mademoiselle," a tale of a somewhat not-all-there boy in a small town who dresses as a girl and is accepted as "mademoiselle" by the townsfolk until he tries to dress in male clothes...and disaster results. Cross-dressing was nothing new...but this could be an early example of gender confusion or even transsexualism.

The stories are relatively short, and often lack traditional denouements, so sometimes you'll be left feeling like they cut off too soon sometimes...but then you stop and think and piece them together and then...yikes! That was the art of the conte cruel; it was often short and nasty.

This is a superior collection that is available both in print and as an ebook from the good people at Black Coat Press. Look into it...

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A February Night at the Concert Hall

So we're off again to our favorite concert venue, for an evening of music and fun. And tonight, as a change from the usual seriousness, they include some light works from various composers, including this delightful piece of devilishness...



A good bit of fun, eh? This piece was used as theme music for the BBC radio show "Dick Barton, Special Agent." It's a good piece with undertones of excitement and adventure in store.

So we're on to February, folks! Let's hope the usual February blahs don't get us down...

Monday, February 1, 2016

Required Reading: THE POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE by Anthony Berkeley

So, not long ago I sang the praises of Berkeley's story "The Avenging Chance." Berkeley later expanded it into a full-length novel...and it's even better. The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) is an acknowledged classic of the Golden Age of Detection, and you have to read it.

The setup is the same. A box of chocolates is sent to a raffish nobleman at his club. Revolted at the gesture, he gives the box to a fellow member who just happens to be nearby. Fellow member takes it home to his wife, in payment for a bet. He eats one, she eats several. He gets sick, and she dies. Who sent the box? Who was the intended victim?

This time around, Berkeley has his detective, Roger Sheringham, part of a group of armchair detectives, the Crime Circle, who are contacted by the police after they hit a brick wall in their investigation. There are six people in the Crime Circle, and each person takes their turn presenting their notions of how it was committed, who the intended victim was, and the identity of the perpetrator...and their own ideas of the motive and parallels to real-life crimes. There's no violence or visits to the crime scene here...each person does some of their own digging and investigating, and each hypothesis has its own merits.

And don't think that it ends the same way as the story....it doesn't. The solution from the story is presented as a possibility....and then shot down by further evidence. The various ideas presented get more and more intense...and even include suspicions cast on other members of the Crime Circle, leading to interpersonal tensions. And when the final solution is presented...and everyone knows it's the right one...it's devastating, and we're left hanging as to whether they'll be able to prosecute.

This is a hell of a read, and worth your time. It's been reprinted in paper format; so far unavailable as an ebook yet.

Anthony Berkeley Cox was one of the classic authors of the Golden Age; he wrote under a number of pseudonyms, and Francis Iles he wrote Before the Fact, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Suspicion. I hope to review more of his works.