Sunday, April 23, 2017

An April Night Out at the Cinema!

April has come and it's an unexpectedly chilly night. At least the frequent rains seem to be washing away the pollen that has given us so many problems.

Dinner at the usual place is a cheery affair, with the chef sending out samples of new menu items and the owner giving us a round of drinks on the house. After the bill is settled, we stroll up the street to that shabby but comfortable old theater for this month's movie.

Tonight, the show is the 1935 thriller Death from a Distance!



This is an old Poverty Row work, but given some extra polish by some professional special effects work, significant for the time and budget. Watch and enjoy!

The show over, we amble up the street for a final drink....and hey, the ticket-taker with the tattoos and biceps is joining us tonight!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

MR. FORTUNE, PLEASE by H. C. Bailey

I went looking for more of Bailey's Mr. Fortune mysteries out there....there is so little available other than the first book! What a crime! You'd think, with all the reprinting and ebooks going on out there, someone would have pounced on Bailey....but so far, not much.

I got hold of this collection of stories through interlibrary loan, and there's some more available, plus I may have to shop on Ebay or Amazon for used copies, which seem to mostly exist in the UK.

Anyway, for the contents...

"The Missing Husband" has a tale of a husband who disappears one day, only to turn up a few days later, dead, in an easily findable spot near his house. What is going on? To be honest, this was my least favorite story in the book, and I almost thought it may have been a bad idea to get this book in the first place. The minute the story was over, I forgot it. That's not good.

But...."The Cat Burglar," the second story, makes up for it. It's a dashing tale of jewel thieves and murder, in a glamorous setting of London society. And it also has some surprising material for a Golden Age mystery story that I won't reveal here, but it's easily spotted.

"The Lion Party" has Fortune investigating a jewel robbery at a high-society party of notorious people, and while the solution may be a bit unsatisfying, it does look into the psychology of those involved. "The Violet Farm" has Fortune looking in on a friend's daughter, getting entangled in a murder and scandal, and eventually finding treasure. "The Quiet Lady" has a woman accused of murder, but an unexpected witness clears up the case. And "The Little House" is a story I've reviewed before.

The language is graceful, and it's also a bit daring for Golden Age stories in depicting police corruption and child abuse, as well as Society characters who are venal and shallow. It's actually very modern for something from 1927.

Anyway, recommended....if you can find it. Back to the library it goes!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

At the Phantom Concert Hall

So, tonight we're at the concert hall again, for something different. VERY different.

Tonight's program includes a very modern piece, Robert Paterson's 2013 composition "Ghost Theater," The name isn't just a postmodern joke; this is really meant to depict a derelict theater haunted by ghosts and shadows, and the specters of soldiers killed in combat.

Give it a listen....



I know, this is very out-of-character for me. I'm normally much more traditional in my music selections, but I'm trying to avoid being stodgy. I saw this performed live here in Baltimore a few weeks ago, and it made an impression.

So...who's up for a drink?

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Last of the Barnavelts: THE SIGN OF THE SINISTER SORCERER by Brad Strickland

Great cover, huh? It's appropriate; this is the last of the Barnavelt series, and the last Bellairs novel that Strickland wrote. Apparently his publisher decided to axe the series.

It's the mid-1950s, and Lewis Barnavelt is having a rough time, as usual. At an end-of-school party, where Uncle Jonathan is performing a magic show, he sees an odd, cloaked figure off to the side, which disappears quickly. Then he has a run of bad luck; he gets two black eyes, he loses his allowance, and twists his ankle. He then looks in the enchanted mirror that hangs in the coatrack in the front hall and sees the image on the cover...the hooded figure tracing a "3" in the air.

What could it mean? Lewis is trying to puzzle it out when his uncle's wand vanishes and later Jonathan himself disappears. What's going on? Who is responsible? And what of the new kid in town, Hal Everit, who has so many questions about magic and sorcery?

It's an interesting story, and I get the vibe that Strickland knew this was it, as he did something a little daring. (SPOILERS!) The thing is, Jonathan is being persecuted by an old rival from his student days, who had participated in the manufacture of the enchanted coatrack mirror, and who now wants it for himself. However, the rival has taken the guise of young Hal Everit, and toward the end of the book there's a scene where the artifical Hal falls apart. It's pretty gruesome for a kid's book.

However, there's one bit that I found a problem, and I had to double-check to be sure I was right. In the first book in the series, the coatrack mirror is clearly described as round, and the Gorey illustration follows suit. But Strickland makes a goof, and describes the mirror as being rectangular. A pretty serious error.

Still, it's not a bad book at all, though not the best of Strickland's work. I felt a little wistful as it ended, but the series could only go so far. The idea of the kids being frozen in time, more or less, and never getting older (when the Bellairs-penned works touched on their getting older), which I understand was the command of the publisher, but it took something away from the series, I felt.

Bellairs wrote two other series, one about Anthony Monday (four books) and another about Johnny Dixon (an even dozen) and I'll get into those later. Now that I'm working again, I have to schedule my reading time more carefully!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Belated Evening at the Phantom Concert Hall

We pick our way across the patches of ice and solidified snow to that old concert hall. It's a big night; a noted guitarist is in town, and we nabbed tickets!

We're hoping for some hot guitar action to bring in some signs of spring, but the freezing temperatures and high winds are telling us that winter is still with us. However, some music from sunny Spain puts us in a romantic springtime mood.



(I'm so sorry for being so late with this....I started a new job last week and it's taking a lot of my energy and time, and it'll be a while before I've adjusted to working full time again. And we're having brutally cold weather right now that's got me in a rotten mood....)

The show over, we slip out and find a cafe for a warm drink....that wind is brutal!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Catching Up & Short Takes

OK, I've been busy and distracted lately, but in a good way: I start a new job tomorrow! It came just in time; my unemployment ran out (you get six months here in Maryland) and what money I had was on the verge of running out, so if I didn't land a job when I did I'd be moving in with my mother and updating this blog from the local library. (She doesn't have internet.)

I won't go into detail about the new job but it's with a local stable company, involves research, is a temp-to-hire position through a famous temp company, but if they like me after about six months I'll be brought on permanently. The pay is less than I had been making but is right at the low end of what I'd prefer. (Considering everything else I'd been interviewing for was below that mark, sometimes significantly below, I think I'm lucky.)

So...what have I been reading lately?


Some of H. C. Bailey's works about Reggie Fortune are available as ebooks and I read the first one, after sampling some excellent tales. These are fun traditional mysteries from 1920, and while sometimes Reggie seems a bit too much like Lord Peter Wimsey (whom some simply can't stand), the stories tend to the darker than Wimsey's and could deal with intense obsessions, corruption, miscarriages of justice, and child abuse. The stories in this particular collection are a bit lighter in tone than some of later ones, but Bailey's elegant and sophisticated style are a joy to read and the mysteries can be genuinely nasty...although one is a bit comical. They do give an "origin story" as the first tale, "The Archduke's Tea," features Fortune accidentally embroiled in a mystery, with the police (and he himself) being surprised as his acumen in solving the case, leading him to be called in on others as the volume progresses. I can't wait to dip into more Fortune; this is damn good stuff.


Well, this is lurid, isn't it? This is the first in a series of collections of pulp tales by Paul Chadwick, about the adventures of reporter Wade Hammond, who becomes embroiled in some startling mysteries. The first story, "Murder in the Mist," is shockingly mundane, but the third story, "The Murder Monster," which the cover illustrates, is sheer pulp madness. There's a mad criminal called the Tarantula, a mesmeric mastermind, and a bizarre plot involving making people see skeletons. My favorite story, "Doctor Zero," had a mastermind using weird purple lights as murder weapons. This is good pulpy fun, as published in the magazines "Detective Dragnet" and "Ten Detective Aces" between 1931 and 1935.


Elizabeth Daly had been a big deal in the 40s, with Agatha Christie naming her as her favorite mystery author. This is her first book....and I wasn't thrilled. It actually took me three tries to read it, and when I finally did, I had the plot figured out easily. Henry Gamage (Daly's detective, a rare book expert) is vacationing at a seaside resort in Maine when an alarming death occurs, as a frail, ill man seemingly falls from a cliff. However, there's evidence that it might not have been an accident, and the death occurs literally hours after he inherited a fortune. There's a lot of meandering around a local theater company and a golf game, but I found it confusing and hard to follow, and the final revelation not much of a shock. I was very disappointed in this book but I have heard some very good things about her other novels, so I'll probably give her another try at some point.


The first in a new series and while it was well-structured and well-written, I was rather annoyed with it as it's yet another one of those books set in Victorian times but with the characters not acting all that Victorian. Really, it seems to be endemic among those who write historical fiction these days to make their physical milieu well-researched and period-accurate but their character's attitudes and behaviors to be perfectly modern. But I digress...March Middleton, newly orphaned, goes to London to live with her new guardian, detective Sidney Grice, who is a flamboyant and well-known figure in the papers. Middleton finally convinces him to allow her to assist on a case, a seemingly sordid one involving a murder in a sleazy junk shop, but it ends up leading into rather strange Victorian noir territory. Not bad, but there were aspects of it I wasn't crazy about. Unsure if I'll continue down this road...

Well, there's some more, but that's enough for now. I need to get to bed and be ready for my first day of work tomorrow....

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A February Evening at the Cinema

It's been a strangely warm February; is this a hint of a hot summer to come? Is it climate change? Well, of course it is, that much is obvious, but we chat over dinner about how we didn't have much of a winter this year. Not much in the way of deep cold spells, no significant snowstorms to speak of. Takes away a good excuse to hunker down at home.

But after teasing the waiter over the bill, and remarking on tonight's fish special, we head up the street to that old movie theater we love so well.

Tonight's film is another golden oldie from 1936, The Rogue's Tavern.



This actually holds up quite well as a comedy/mystery and is still very enjoyable today. Produced on a shoestring, it actually looks like a million bucks thanks to good sets and a good cast.

The show over, we bid our adieus to the folks at the theater and wander up the street to that little cafe...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray

This was another library find, picked up at random. But when I got home, I found it on a list of recommended books that I'd jotted down long ago and almost forgotten. This is an entertaining tale of murder and the occult set in 1920s New York.

Evie O'Neill is a wealthy flapper from the town of Zenith, OH (nice tip of the hat to Sinclair Lewis there) who has a psychic power: she can hold a person's possession and get psychic impressions of them and see their secrets. Blurting out a local's dirty secret at a party, she's shipped off to New York to stay with her Uncle William, who runs a museum of the occult with his assistant, Jericho.

Evie makes friends with the downtrodden Mabel, the child of social-reformer parents, Theta Knight, a Ziefeld showgirl, and her best friend, gay pianist Henry, pickpocket Sam (who's more than he appears to be) and Harlem numbers runner Memphis Campbell. Everyone has their secrets, people sometimes clash, but everyone's lives converge.

A series of murders is striking New York, with serious occult overtones, and Will is called in by the police to assist. Evie uses her psychic powers to get information, and investigates. Evie is madcap and goofy, but inside is haunted by the death of her older brother in WWI and her parents' rejection of her. She has repeated dreams of him and it becomes clear that he's trying to communicate something to her, but she can't tell what. Memphis, who plays a large role in this, is haunted by his memory of having healing powers as a child, but is also protective of his younger brother Isaiah, who has psychic powers of his own, and is dealing with the death of his mother and his family's seeming abandonment by his father.

Their paths converge as more murders occur, and clues point to a racist church in the suburbs, then to a former cultist's compound upstate (actually a fairly accurate depiction of such cults back in the day). There's fake (and real) spiritualists, weird revelations, and hints of government conspiracies and shady operations.

It's interesting that there's a lot of world-building going on here, and lots of wheels are set in motion that are still turning by the end of the book. In fact, after the main threat of the novel is resolved, there's still a lot going on that will presumably be continued in a sequel, Lair of Dreams, and one presumes there's an entire series in the works.

It's long, nearly 600 pages, but it moves quickly and I was able to complete it in a few days. It's certainly fun, if sometimes uneven, and so much left hanging at the end. (I tend to prefer books that are self-contained.) Still, it's new and different, and the Roaring 20s setting is well-researched. Worth checking out.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

February at the Phantom Concert Hall


It's been a while since we've been to the symphony, so this month we've scored tickets and are dolling up in our best bohemian finery. (One of these days, we'll get to the opera. Really.)

We hurry to our seats, which are actually good ones for a change. (Remember that Beethoven concert where we were so far back we heard the traffic more than the music?) All around us people are thronged, some looking at us enviously with our easy laughter and unconventional-yet-dressy attire.

Tonight's program is an epic....Mahler's 7th Symphony, also called "The Song of the Night."



Whew...that was a marathon! Well, friends, shall we go back to my place and enjoy a late dinner? I have something in the slow cooker that will be done by the time we get there...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

THE HOUSE WHERE NOBODY LIVED by Brad Strickland

The next volume of the Barnvelt adventures, by Brad Strickland, The House Where Nobody Lived is a fun little chiller based on some reality, and is also fairly different from the others. Besides that hideous cover painting.

It's sometime vaguely in the 1950s. (By now, Strickland had been pressured by the publisher to "freeze" his characters age-wise and the timeline being just the '50s.) Lewis and Rose Rita, out rambling around town, come across Hawaii House, an isolated building in an odd architectural style that had been built by a sea captain who had first taken American diplomats to Hawaii in the 1800s; the house was in the style of wealthy Hawaiian landowners. (Back then, they had been called the Sandwich Islands, though.) However, there's a gruesome tale of how once people moved in, everyone in the house died in the space of one night, all being found frozen to death. The two hear drumbeats from inside, and see phantom figures, and flee the scene. Time passes.

Later, a family buys the house, and Lewis and Rose Rita befriend the son, David Keller, who has a speech impediment. (Which is handled nicely, and Lewis and Rose are actually realistically sympathetic.) But the family has problems; they never get a decent night's sleep, and dream of drums and phantom figures. David has a haunted aspect about him, and when Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann manage to visit the house, they find weird emanations abounding.

I won't tell much more, but I was happy to see that there's no unnecessary secret-keeping, and the book's menaces are based on Hawaiian mythology, and it's all very nicely handled. In fact, I'd say that while the writing in this isn't brilliant, at the same time it's one of the best structured stories that Strickland had done for the Barnavelt series. I came away without any issues regarding continuity or plot lapses. It may not be art, but it's damned good craft.

So, a solid late entry for the Barnavelt saga, worth reading.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Chilly January Night at the Cinema!

Tonight, the weather is blustery and cold, but at least the rain stopped. We dine comfortably in our favorite restaurant while chatting about our latest adventures, not the least of which is surviving the holiday season, while looking ahead with dread to Valentine's Day.

After we finish dinner, and conclude our good-natured teasing with the waiter over the bill, we head up the street to that old theater we like so much...

Tonight's film is the 1936 mystery chiller A Face in the Fog.



Despite some cheap production values and subpar sound, this has got a good cast and a nicely macabre murder plot. It was based on a story by Peter Kyne, and is one of several adaptations of that author's work by the long-gone Victory company.

The show over, we huddle into our coats and head up the street for a last libation at that small cafe...please join us....

Monday, January 16, 2017

Two from the Library



My holiday reading was pretty shuddersome, as usual. I scrounged in the interlibrary loan database and found Hugh Lamb's first anthology of Victorian reprints, and dived in.

It runs the gamut of Victorian style. M. P. Shiel's "Xelucha" and de Maupassant's "The Mother of Monsters" are both on the Decadent side, while Elizabeth Braddon't "The Mystery at Fernwood" and Mrs. Molesworth's "The Shadow in the Moonlight" are rather sentimental. There's "My Favorite Murder" by Ambrose Bierce, always in a class by himself, and the same goes for Le Fanu's "Madam Crowl's Ghost."

It's a good anthology, although now a couple of the stories, namely "Madam Crowl's Ghost" and Grant Allen's "Wolverden Tower", are now familiar staples. Some are ghostly, like "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" by Guy Boothby, "The Dead Man of Varley Grange" by an unknown author.

To run them down quickly: "Xelucha," by M. P. Shiel, is a story of Decadent fascination and a femme fatale who may or may not be supernatural in nature. Charles Dickens' "The Black Veil" is a tale of madness and obsession. Braddon's "The Mystery at Fernwood" is a gothic story of madness and family secrets. Boothby's "The Black Lady of Brin Tor" is a ghost story with a tragic twist.

"The Mother of Monsters" by de Maupassant is fairly nasty and cruel, but also amazingly good. "The Murderer's Violin" by Erckmann-Chatrian has a visit by a ghost but is mostly about madness and inspiration. Richard Marsh's "The Mask" has a man stalked by an insane murderer who is a master of disguise. The anonymous "The Dead Man of Varley Grange" is a supernatural tale of ghosts and curses. Bierce's "My Favorite Murder" is a sardonic tale of murder and cruelty.

"The Shadow in the Moonlight" by Mrs. Molesworth is a nice little tale of a haunting. Mrs. Riddell's "The Last of Squire Ennismore" is a tale of hauntings and a visitation by Old Nick. "The Red Warder of the Reef" by J. A. Barry is a conte cruel of an escaped murderer getting his just punishment. "Wolverden Tower" by Grant Allen is a chilling gothic ghost story, as is Le Fanu's "Madam Crowl's Ghost," which also deserves notice as a dialect tale that's actually readable. (I normally LOATHE dialect tales.) And last comes Dick Donovan's "The Cave of Blood," a tale of supernatural revenge and really quite lurid.

This is a fun collection and worth hunting down, as is any anthology edited by Lamb, in my opinion.

For something of a more recent vintage, I dived into Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club.


In Kim Newman's universe, the Diogenes Club (introduced in the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Greek Interpreter") is actually a super-secret arm of the British Intelligence services, focused on investigating the weird and outre. The stories in this book center on a 70s agent Richard Jeperson, and his assistants, the sexy Vanessa and former cop Fred Regent.

Jeperson is gaudy, flashy dresser and is obviously a nod to the BBC program Jason King, which featured Peter Wyngarde as a novelist turned sleuth who was also quite the 70s dandy. The Diogenes Club employs people with "Talents", e.g. psychic powers, or those able to cope with dealing with the supernatural or abnormal.

The first story, "The End of the Pier Show," introduces Fred Regent as an undercover cop infiltrating a skinhead gang, who gets caught up in supernatural hijinx at a seaside resort. He's called in to join Jeperson and Vanessa as they investigate a weird bit of time slippage, and it turns out to be some people trying to drag Britain back in time to the 1940s...and there's a nice speech about how yeah, it was good in some ways, but very bad in others.

"You Don't Have to Be Mad...." involves a series of bizarre deaths connected to a mental hospital/corporate retreat that turns out to be a recruiting ground for psychotic assassins. This story introduces a character named only "Mrs. Empty," a woman devoid of compassion or feeling, and her identity comes clear in a later story. "Tomorrow Town" is a rather straightforward murder mystery story in an outre setting, a futuristic utopian community that's not quite working out. Both these stories have big weirdness going on but are essentially mundane, lacking any supernatural content.

But it comes back in "Egyptian Avenue," when some hauntings in a picturesque cemetery turn out to be a warning of present danger. In "Soho Golem" a series of murders in London's red-light district seem to be connected to the activities of an anti-smut crusader. "The Serial Murder" has the sleuths moving forward into 1980 and investigating a weird set of deaths that happen simultaneously with depictions of similar deaths on a TV soap opera. Jeperson, Regent, and Vanessa all turn the tables on the killer, who is using supernatural forces and setting up an occult murder-for-hire racket.

"The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train" is a flashback to Jeperson's first real adventure in the 1950s, as he sets off with some fellow agents to investigate a supposedly haunted express train to Scotland. Not only does he battle an unearthly menace, but it also chronicles his first encounter with Vanessa, and give a humorous glimpse into early Cold War politics.

The last story (and longest) is "Swellhead", set in roughly the early days of the 21st century, as a retired Jeperson is called on to join a team investigating some odd goings-on connected to a remote island near the Faeroes. Joining them is a mysterious man who has weird mental powers, and the island hides a bizarre retro-hi-tech installation that resembles something from one of the more flamboyant James Bond movies. The story is actually quite thought-provoking and hearkens back to some of my adolescent imaginings...and ends with the promise of Jeperson returning for more in the modern world.

So this is a definite go-and-read. It's tons of fun. Sadly, it's out of print, but used copies and library copies are out there, and one can only hope that an ebook edition will come along sometime...


Sunday, January 8, 2017

January in the Phantom Recital Hall!

Bundle up! It's a cold night out, and we're going out to hear some music. Over at the university the music school is doing a series, and this month they're honoring Poe's birthday with a special performance.

We huddle into the recital hall, thankful for the free tickets a friend got us, and soon the music starts...



It's different, and also not often heard. Andre Caplet's works are sadly overlooked today, and he's remembered more for his orchestrations of Debussy than for anything he did himself. It's always fun to discover some good stuff by a lesser-known composer.

Bundling up, we go out for some coffee and conversation after the show. It's almost a relief to have the holidays behind us and to move forward in the new year....