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?


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 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.....