Monday, October 31, 2011

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL: The Devil of Pei Ling - Herbert Asbury

Far from a work of literary stature The Devil of Pei-Ling (1927) is an all-out, over-the-top bonanza of horror and occult trappings.  It's been one of my favorite early 20th century horror novels and a perfect example of the excesses of pulp magazine writing.

Asbury began his career as a yellow journalist then turned to writing true crime books focusing on the most lurid and sensational events and people he could uncover. His book Gangs of New York is very well known now thanks to Martin Scorsese's film of the same name. He also wrote about the gamblers, prostitutes and seedy underworld of Northern California at the turn of the 19th century in Barbary Coast. His only ventures into fiction that I know of are this supernatural thriller and the relatively low-key (by comparison) detective novel, The Tick of the Clock, also featuring Inspector Tommy Conroy.

You know you're in for a weird-fest when on the first page Asbury lists several non-fiction sources on the occult that he apparently used to add an element of realism to his novel. The book is filled with didactic lectures, true life anecdotes, historical background related to topics like black mass practices, demonology and paranormal phenomena all on prominent display. Asbury wastes no time in setting the proper mood when in the first chapter we meet a Jane Doe recuperating in a Manhattan hospital from mysterious bleeding wounds of unknown etiology (as they say in the medical world). The physician narrator is convinced her wounds are the signs of stigmata. He discusses at length how throughout history women displaying stigmata have been thought to be omens incarnate for impending evil. No sooner has Inspector Conroy been called in to consult on this strange case then the first horrible event takes place.

A judge has been found murdered in a grotesque manner in his bedroom. The only witness to the crime is a butler who describes seeing gouts of blood dripping from the ceiling, walls, and furniture while the judge, incredibly suspended in midair, was strangled with a ghostly snakelike rope also dripping blood. Then the rope vanished, along with the visionary blood, and the judge's body collapsed to the floor. The police surgeon examining the body swears that the man had been executed by a hangman's rope as his neck is broken and no other wounds or signs of death can be found. What unearthly force is at work here?

It only gets better, gang. Conroy receives a strange phone call from an otherworldly guttural sounding voice promising another death. The phone call is traced to the home of one Dorothy Crawford. Conroy and the Jerry, the physician (he has no last name!) make their way to her home. Before even approaching the front door Conroy notices a woman dressed in a black robe in the window of an apartment in the building. The two men watch as she kneels before a small desk resembling a tiny altar. It is surrounded with black candles with a toad atop it. She appears to be in a trace-like state and is chanting in a low guttural voice, a knife is in her hand. They interrupt her by ringing the doorbell and enter to interrogate her about the strange phone call.

Soon we learn that Crawford had a relationship with Silvio, an executed murderer, and that the murderer had vowed vengeance on all who convicted him. The judge was apparently the first of his victims. A district attorney in next on the list. Dorothy Crawford has managed to contact Silvio's spirit through the black arts and it is manifesting itself alternately in the form of a giant toad and a murderous demon. Can Conroy and Doc Jerry stop this mad thing before it slaughters more innocent people? Not before they brush up on their exorcism skills. Oh yes! There's an exorcism par excellence in the climax.

A better "more bang for your buck" occult thriller will not appear until Dennis Wheatley shows up about ten years later with The Devil Rides Out. In Asbury's book you get stigmata, black mass rituals, vengeful ghost, supernatural manifestations galore, gory murders, buckets of blood, and demonic possession by an evil Asian deity. It's like a decade's worth of Weird Tales issues between two covers of a single book. The dialog is rife with overuse of the exclamation mark to underscore the hysterical melodrama and dire situations. While Asbury's book is far from literature, it is great fun. The perfect kind of read for this time of year when we all turn to the macabre for a little dip into the pool of guilty pleasures. With the excesses found in The Devil of Pei-Ling, however, you may be in danger of learning how a little dip can turn into a near drowning.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012

Bev from My Reader's Block has already started the ball rolling for next year's Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. And this year is slightly different. Participants must read a minimum of eight books from the defined "vintage period" (anything published prior to 1960) and choose from one of the many categories Bev has whipped up. They range from books with colors or animal in the titles to books only by women authors or books only by male authors. You can read books that share a common setting (eight books set in the same city, set in a hospital, set on an island, etc.) or feature only amateur detectives or only policemen. There's quite a range of possibilities. If Bev's categories don't suit you there's always "Murderous Miscellany" that allows you to design your own category of eight books with a common theme.

Since this blog is pretty much nothing but vintage mystery reviews and essays I'm going for three categories - two of Bev's and one custom made category of my own - for a total of 24 books. Easily done, my friends, though I'm sure to exceed that by the year's end. Though I won't be listing many of the actual titles (I am subject to frequent fits of whimsy that will cause me to deviate from any laid out plan) I will list the authors I have lined up.

The writers marked below with an asterisk (*) will be first time reads for me. I know it's hard to believe, but there are hundreds of writers I have yet to sample.

PERILOUS POLICEMEN: 8 books with a policeman as the primary investigator
Anthony Abbott
Jonathan Craig
Ed McBain
J. J. Marric*
Nigel Morland
Helen Reilly*
Lawrence Treat*
Henry Wade*

DEADLY DECADES: 7 books, one from each decade plus one extra of my choosing
Pre-1900s - Mary Elizabeth Braddon*, Emile Gaboriau*, Wilkie Collins
1900s - Gaston Leroux, Arthur Morrison*, E. W. Hornung*
1910s - Hesketh Prichard, Ernest Bramah, Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre
1920s - Isabel Ostrander, Carroll John Daly, Johnston McCulley, Thomas Hanshew*
1930s - Jonathan Latimer, Nicholas Brady, Ethel Lina White*, Richard Hull, Anthony Berkeley
1940s - Helen McCloy, A.B. Cunningham, E.C.R. Lorac*
1950s - Bruno Fischer*, Jonathan Craig, Day Keene*, Helen Nielsen*
... and many more especially from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

MURDEROUS MISCELLANY: Witchcraft/Black Magic in the detective novel
Gladys Mitchell
Michael Burt
Maxwell Grant
Dennis Wheatley
The Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr
The Devil's Bride by Seabury Quinn
The Witching Hour by C. S. Cody
The Black Magician by R.T.M. Scott
...and probably some others I will discover serendipitously next year.

I encourage all lovers of mystery novels who have yet to sample some of the best of the old books to take this opportunity and challenge yourself with the bare minimum of eight books. Eight books over an entire year! Anyone can do that. Those eight may lead to new discoveries and a new addiction. Anything is possible.

NEW STUFF: Wicked Autumn - G. M. Malliet

Fans of the traditional mystery have much to to be excited about with the release of G. M. Malliet's latest book which also launches a new series featuring Max Tudor, a sleuthing vicar in the quaint English village of Nether Monkslip. More than any new book recently published this one is a genuine throwback to the Golden Age of Detection. Critics and fans are prone to whip up all sorts of analogies on new books and dust jacket blurbs are eager to compare new writers to existing writers. On occasion someone will dare to call a writer "the new Christie" or write "if you like Dorothy Sayers you'll LOVE this book." All too often these analogies are dubious and ill-informed and the inheritor of some earlier writer's mantle is far from deserving that honor. Not so with Wicked Autumn which is one of the most genuine, tightly plotted, well clued, fair play retro detective novels to come along in a very long time. Comparisons to the Grand Dame herself in this case are more than well deserved.

Wanda Batton-Smythe is the commandeering, self-appointed leader of the Women's Institute in Nether Monkslip and she is not pleased with the shoddy volunteer work for the upcoming Harvest Fayre. She is an unyielding, demanding bully and not at all popular with the other women in the group or even the rest of the village. When she turns up dead the day of the festival dressed in an uncharacteristically voguish attire Max Tudor suspects that the seemingly accidental death may in fact be a deliberate act of foul play. Further investigation reveals Wanda died of anaphylactic shock resulting from her intense allergy to peanuts. Her usual epinephrine injector always on her person is nowhere to be found. Tudor is convinced she was murdered and sets out to prove it.

The tone is sardonic, the murder is fiendishly carried out in a manner that rivals John Rhode's imaginative murder methods, the detection is sharp, and the characters give the book it's very contemporary feel amid all the traditional whodunit trappings. But it is Malliet's unique prose style that truly makes this book something special. There are writers and then there are word magicians; Malliet has a way with constructing sentences and describing people and places that is nothing short of wizardry.

The words dripped with ice, but Awena could almost have sworn she saw flames burning behind the grey eyes. Her imagination added tiny martyrs chained to a stake.

...eyes that generally held such a faraway look her real target might have been Alpha Centauri.

...her hair had been loosed from its Final Net death grip and stood out in a sort of halo around her head...

It was as if [the Major had] never been in his own kitchen before. Indeed, Max thought it likely Wanda was one of those women who forbade men entrée into their exclusive domain, on the grounds of man's innate, clodhopping destructiveness in the presence of glassware and china.

The neighboring towns (Monkslip-super-Mare, Staincross Minster), the shops and local businesses (my favorite is the used book store called The Onlie Begetter) and even the characters' names (Jasper Batton-Smythe, Constable Musteille, Elka Garth) all evoke the flavor of those well-loved vintage detective novels of the past century. Yet the people and the story are far from old-fashioned. The internet exists here, is inescapable perhaps, and has allowed many of the local shopkeepers to survive by extending their business beyond the tiny village when they might otherwise have failed had they relied only on the locals. The young people are hip and trendy in their appearance and attitudes and their elders are trying to keep up with them.  Even the oldest member of the community Agnes Pitchford, gossip extraordinaire, manages to pick up on some subtle modern behavior that will be crucial to the solution of the murder.


The book itself is well designed and in itself a homage to the mystery novels of the 1920s and 1930s. There are beautifully detailed endpaper maps (a color version taken from Malliet's website appears above), a list of the main characters with brief descriptions of each, and a table of contents with chapter titles. I've always wondered why the Louise Penny books (also published by Minotaur Books) have never had a map of Three Pines on the endpapers. In Malliet's case it's just perfect. All of these elements added to the intricate story of Wanda's murder reminded me of so many village murder mysteries of the past, but in particular The Bolt by P.R. Shore with which it shares many characteristics from the lead character to the victim to the book design itself.

Author photo © by Joe Henson
Look no further for one of the leading contenders for nearly everyone mystery novel award that's out there. Wicked Autumn is sure to be nominated for many of them and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if Malliet won at least one of those awards. I'm not one for making predictions, but I believe Wicked Autumn is a shoo-in for next year's Agatha. Remember: you read it here first.

For more about the origins and creation of Wicked Autumn see this excellent article by G. M. Malliet at the blog "Jungle Red" and do make sure to visit her website where there is an cleverly designed interactive map of Nether Monkslip.

Friday, October 28, 2011

COOL FLICKS: A List of Movies for Halloween

Don't piss off the gypsy lady! Lorna Raver in Drag Me to Hell
Halloween is right around the corner and I thought I'd make a list of some suitably creepy ghost movies, monster movies and supernatural thrillers that would make the perfect mini film festival for anyone who wants a night filled with scares. My list, not surprising to many of you, features overlooked or under-appreciated movies and does not include the usual movies that crop up year after year on similar lists. I've arranged the films in reverse chronological order and not by my preference which is always difficult for me to do.

Drag Me To Hell (2009) - Hands down one of the best modern horror movies and a throwback to the old 1970s horror movies I loved as a teen. Genuinely scary, surprisingly funny, and completely entertaining. Amazing performance by Lorna Raver as a gypsy woman who curses a poor bank loan officer (Alison Lohman) forced to be cruel in order to keep her job. Directed by horror master Sam Raimi it's a return to his old style of movie making dating back to his Evil Dead days. The musical score by Christopher Young starts off this movie on the perfect eerie note and is one of the best of any horror movie in the past twenty years. Warning: Some very disgusting gross-out scenes that seem to be done more for laughs than scares.

Them (2007) - No, not the movie about the giant ants. A terrifying French film based on a very real and truly horrible news story. Couple rents a house in the Romanian woods and something in the forest doesn't want them in there. This movie scared the crap out of me. It's most successful at being ambiguous about the menacing beings taunting the couple. Are they ghosts? Are they creatures? Are they even human? You don't find out until the final minutes.

The Host (2007) - A fantastic monster movie from Korean filmmaker Joon-Ho Bong. Who knew a monster movie could also be a moving family drama? And it's very funny at times as well.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) - Another Korean movie. This one is one of the best of a slew of Asian horror movies that have been remade as much more inferior American movies. A combination of ghost story and murder mystery with fairy tale influences, this is a movie best seen without knowing a thing about it. Beautifully filmed, top notch acting, and a very original story that packs quite a gasp inducing surprise ending.

Dagon (2001) - The only Lovecraft inspired movie I recommend. I pretty much hate all the rest of them. (Though Call of Cthulhu, a cleverly done silent movie, has some wonderful moments.) Dagon is a blend of the creepy and the goofy and the gory. Campy over-the-top performance from Ezra Gooden in the lead and a very sexy villainess in Raquel Meroño (shown at left). Excellent final sequence so obviously inspired by the pulp magazines of the 1930s. True cineastes will recognize that the entire movie's look, story and performance style is a homage to the Spanish-made horror movies of the 1970s. Want a real monster movie Halloween treat? Watch this one.

Race with the Devil (1972) - Not exactly supernatural horror but scary all the same. Two couples on vacation in their souped up RV are pursued by members of a devil worshiping cult when they accidentally witness a secret ritual performed in the woods. Great chase scenes and action sequences. Above par for similar 1970s movies but avoiding gore and overuse of special effects and musical cues to scare an audience. I don't think this is available on DVD, though there may be bootleg or homemade versions for sale out there somewhere.

Chris Udvarnoky & Uta Hagen have a little chat in The Other
The Other (1972) - Few good twin/bad twin movies can match this for real chills and horror. Twin brothers Niles and Holland are coached by their eccentric grandmother to play a very special game that calls upon a supernatural power they all share. One of the twins goes a little too far with his game playing. The scenes when the family look for a missing baby have stayed in my memory for decades. Powerful and touching performance from Uta Hagen as the grandmother. And the two boys who play the twins are rather amazing for child actors. Too many movies have ripped off this plot and none of them have really succeeded as well as this true original. Directed by Robert Mulligan best known for To Kill a Mockingbird.  Based on the classic modern horror novel by Thomas Tryon.

Tales from the Crypt (1972) - I have to put this on the list for nostalgia's sake. Images and scenes from this horror movie have been indelibly burned into my memory since I first saw it when I was 11 years old. Five different stories in one movie - all about cruel, nasty or selfish people who get their comeuppance. It's kind of a mixed bag as far as quality frights go, but two of the stories are truly nightmare inducing. The first story with Joan Collins as a woman driven to murderous rage at Christmas time is really a crime story not a horror tale and it's an idea that's been recycled many times. One is a retelling of "The Monkey's Paw", another is a retelling of M. R. James' "Lost Hearts" with Peter Cushing in the lead role. The one with Cushing and another with Nigel Patrick in charge of a home for blind men are the best of the lot.

Horror Hotel (1960) [AKA The City of the Dead] - Spooky story about a college girl researching witchcraft at the creepy Raven's Inn run by the forbidding Mrs. Newliss. Christopher Lee (only a minor role here) and Patricia Jessel turn in top notch performances. Venetia Stephenson as the hapless Nan Barlow is a a great scream queen. This deeply affected me when I first saw it as a teen and over 40 years later I still count it as one of the best horror movies dealing with witches. An underrated classic.

Dead of Night (1945) - "Room for one more, sir." Several people tell stories of strange and weird events in their lives. This, I think, is the granddaddy of all similar anthology horror movies. Two stories are based on E. F. Benson tales, another is from H. G. Wells. Michael Redgrave as a tortured ventriloquist (below) would inspire many, many ventriloquist horror story rip-offs.


The Devil Commands (1941) - Fairly faithful adaptation of the excellent science fiction/horror novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane. Mad scientist unable to accept his wife's death goes to great lengths to invent a method of communicating with the dead. Boris Karloff in the lead role as good as ever is supported by Ann Revere (seen at left) who turns in one of her most impressive performances as a manipulative medium. Weird and nightmarish. Too many have dismissed it for being low budget or old-fashioned or stupid (it's not) and completely miss the point of its fantastic and allegorical elements. Directed by film noir pioneer Edward Dmytryk.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Death Wish - Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

I had to keep checking the copyright date on The Death Wish, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s third foray into the crime novel. It had a very post World War Two feel to it: life in the suburbs, men car pooling to the train station to get to their routine city jobs, wives staying at home tending to their domestic comfort, and an insidious atmosphere of discontent and resentment lying beneath the surface. But this book was written in 1935. It shows the American genesis of a crime novel subgenre dominated by character psychology and criminal thoughts that was already being pioneered in England in books like Malice Aforethought, and Before the Fact by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley) and Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester.

If the title alone hasn’t informed the reader of the story that awaits him then surely the opening pages will do it. Josephine Delancey berates her husband for sneaking out of the bedroom once again in his stealthy manner. She nearly accuses him of wanting to kill her. Shawe Delancey heads out of the house to pick up his friend and neighbor, Robert Whitestone, a struggling painter who has had to take a day job just to live an ordinary life. He confesses to hating his stifling home life, his wife Rosalind is smothering him with demands, belittling his artistic aspirations and impeding his creative progress. He would like to kill her. Whitestone then challenges his friend, “You’re the same with Josephine. Don’t deny it.” Shawe is insulted, gets indignant and walks away from his friend though secretly he knows that Whitestone is correct.

Two unhappy husbands -- one who has voiced his desire to rid himself of his wife, the other feeling the same, but too cowardly to openly admit it. Add into the mix Elsie Sackett, a young woman who sets her eyes on Robert Whitestone and wants him as much as he wants her, and you have the basic ingredients for a time bomb of impassioned desires and dark impulses waiting to explode in violence. Soon Rosalind Whitestone is dead – a drowning accident at the beach that is much too suspicious to believe given that she was such an excellent swimmer.

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
The story is told in an omniscient voice and we are privy to the thoughts of all the characters. Much of the dialog is thought rather than spoken and is a stark contrast to what the characters actually speak aloud. Whole interior monologues are set out as dialog as if the characters cannot relate to one another truthfully, that this Long Island town is populated with nothing but tormented loners forever walking about talking to themselves trying to work out their troubles. This may not seem too radical and to some perhaps may come off as prosaic for crime fiction, but in 1935 there were few writers doing this kind of thing. The reading public was still enthralled with the puzzle of the traditional whodunit and the inner life of the characters was not the emphasis of the story.

That is not to say that Holding has completely discarded the tropes of the whodunit. Hugh Acheson, also smitten with the temptress Elsie, takes it upon himself to turn detective and prove that Whitestone helped Rosalind into the great beyond. With only two pieces of evidence -- a bathing suit accidentally discovered drying in a pantry rather than outside on a clothesline, and the fact Whitestone was not wearing his glasses when they found him painting in his studio the day his wife died -- he builds up a case against Robert Whitestone who scoffs as the flimsy circumstantial nature of Acheson’s finds. Then Whitestone’s glasses are found on the beach on the other side of some rocks near a path that leads to his home and the police take a serious interest in Acheson’s accusation.

Like Lucia Holley in Holding’s later book The Blank Wall, Delancey is determined to protect someone he cares for from being prosecuted as a criminal. Of Robert Whitestone he says, “He’s no more capable of a dastardly crime like that than I am.” He enlists Elsie’s help in freeing Robert and clearing him of the murder charge. They will say Robert was wearing his glasses when he was painting. It will be Hugh’s word against theirs. A childish tactic certainly, but desperation and devotion often lead adults to act impetuously.

Even stranger is that Hugh suddenly wants to protect Elsie. Her brash behavior, her open flirting, and her relationship with Whitestone he warns her will come to light and will only further tarnish her already sullied reputation and – more importantly – further damn Whitestone as a guilty man. Elsie will be seen as the primary motive for Whitestone killing Rosalind. Hugh’s idea? That they pretend to have fallen in love and act out a sham engagement. He even gives her his mother’s ring to wear as further evidence for the police of their betrothal.

Yet all this pretense and rearranging of the truth does not serve to help Whitestone and only creates more unrest and turmoil in the lives of all those involved. Delancey is deeply affected – perhaps more accurately he is deeply infected – when Whitestone is arrested and thrown in jail. The “death wish” so early recognized by his friend as something they both shared develops into a full blown disease. He contemplates his own murder with truly tragic results.

Holding is best known for The Blank Wall, an equally suspenseful crime story of a mother who goes to great lengths to cover up what she believes is a murder her daughter committed. That novel was twice adapted for the movies: once as The Reckless Moment and much later in a radically updated version (with the daughter substituted for a gay son) called The Deep End. Some of her other books and stories have also been translated to movies and have shown up on old TV anthology shows like "Lights Out!" She was truly a gifted writer with keen insight in the darker side of human nature. Somehow she has faded into the background along with several other woman crime writers who picked up where Holding left off. I count among those writers Margaret Millar, Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong. I am curious why nearly all of these women's books have been allowed to go out of print. Contemporary crime writing owes much to all four of these women, but probably to Holding most of all. She came first and she left an indelible mark.

Most of Holding's books can be found in affordable paperback editions from used bookstores and booksellers specializing in vintage crime books. Only one independent publisher, Stark House Press, has been wise enough (and brave enough) to reissue a handful of her works in a series of books that include two titles in one volume. The Death Wish is coupled with Net of Cobwebs, an amnesia tale that will be reviewed here in the coming weeks. As I have done Christianna Brand I will be devoting a lot of space on this blog to Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's work in the months ahead. I think she is one of the unsung pioneers in American crime fiction and she deserves to be noticed for her accomplishments.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

COOL FLICKS: Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Written & directed by Bryan Forbes
Cinematography by Gerry Turpin
Based on the novel by Mark McShane
Starring: Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Mark Eden, Nanette Newman, Patrick Magee and Judith Donner

"You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were... ordinary. Like you. Dead ordinary. Ordinary and dead like all the others." - Myra Savage as portrayed by Kim Stanley

As promised here is a review on the film version of Mark McShane's book. It is a perfect example of a filmmaker adapting a novel for his own ends. The story is remarkably different from the book and casts the main character, Myra Savage, in a completely new light. Added to that is Bryan Forbes (who wrote the adapted screenplay and directed the movie) decision to transform Bill, her husband, into a man who well aware that Myra is deeply disturbed. But ultimately the major change, and the one that alters nearly everything in the original story, is the creation of a completely new character: Arthur, their dead son.

In McShane's novel it is clearly stated that Myra is not very fond of children and that the two of them have been a childless married couple. Kim Stanley's Myra, on the other hand, is a woman who has never recovered from the death of her son. She is in constant contact with him through her séances and uses Arthur as her spirit guide. It is Arthur, she reminds Bill, who has told her that the way to fame and fortune is through the kidnapping plan. Stanley from the very first scene captures the essence of this new vision of Myra as a utterly destroyed mother who has suffered irrevocable loss. There is not a minute where the viewer does not think we are watching a desperate and pitiful woman who may be teetering on the brink of sanity and ready to completely plunge into a world of her own creation. Like McShane's Myra she refuses to recognize Arthur's plan as anything but a means to an end. She is not a criminal, she is "borrowing" the child they kidnap. They won't keep the ransom money, they will return every last pound along with the girl safe and unharmed. All will be well. But, of course, nothing goes well at all.

Another major difference is that I never believed that Myra's psychic gift in the movie was genuine. In the book we are told she has an eerie power from a very young age and that it seems to be waning in her middle age. In the film Stanley's powerful performance that wavers between a weird ethereal half-mad oracle and a hellish shrew akin to Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had me believing she never was a true psychic. Her desperate clinging to the memory of Arthur allowed her to step into a world of make believe and she uses the idea of being a medium to keep him alive. In this regard Myra has more than a little in common with Albee's Martha. Her voice is always light and airy when talking of Arthur and the Plan, then suddenly she will turn on her husband, her voice drops several octaves and she becomes a stern and mocking termagant. Arthur is not only her spirit guide but he has become her refuge and love object. Bill has lost her love and, no longer her husband, is relegated to little more than her servant.

Likewise the differences between Bill in the book and Bill in the film are drastic. Richard Attenborough shows us the devotion and love for his wife as McShane created Bill, but he is less the fearful husband and more of a cautious and watchful guardian, ever protective of his wife's delicate mental condition. Attenborough's Bill knows that Myra is headed for a complete mental breakdown yet he indulges her. There is, however, a scene where he confronts Myra about the truth of their son's death in which he becomes the truly strong man firmly rooted in reality that McShane's Bill could never be. Attenborough is magnetic and forceful in that scene and Stanley crumples and remains steadfastly in denial even when the truth is spelled out for her.


There is one more crucial difference - one that I feel is the major flaw with Forbes' adaptation. For fear of ruining both the book and the movie I cannot really mention it specifically. I will, however, say that it has to do with the fate of the little girl (renamed Amanda for some inexplicable reason). In the book her fate is an accident, in the film a deliberate act. Although Forbes may think his major change elevates the tragic level of the movie I think it was a huge mistake. It lessens the power of the ending and turns both of them into willful, cold-blooded criminals.

There is no denying that Forbes has created a film of disturbing menace and told a creepy story of what happens when love goes terribly wrong. Yet by completely removing the genuine supernatural aspects of the film, by altering Myra's motives and adding a back story that utterly transforms her into a different Myra, I think the story really does lose much of its intended effect. The Myra of Forbes' movie is a pathetic figure and you don't really want her to succeed at all. She is cruel to her husband, indifferent to her charge, and living in a world of the past. Mark McShane's original Myra is just as driven and ambitious but she is rooted in the present. You want her to regain her place in what little life she has left. Her character may also be a sad figure but you want her to get away with her crime. The ending of the book made me gasp in awe and truly affected me. The ending in the film is sadly predictable and left me numb. That proves that by employing the supernatural in a work of fiction there is the possibility for the author to move the reader. It's a shame that Forbes could not see this.





In looking for movie stills to help illustrate this post, I learned that Séance on a Wet Afternoon has been adapted yet again, this time as an opera. Stephen Schwartz, known primarily for his work in 1970s musical theater (Godspell and Pippin) and now represented on Broadway with the hugely popular Wicked, created an opera of the Bryan Forbes film. I guess it comes as no surprise that Schwartz didn't even bother to read the original novel. Had he chosen to make the book into an opera he would've been rewarded with something much more powerful. Though the premiere with  Opera Santa Barbara was a modest success, the same production transferred to the NY City Opera received a lukewarm review.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Diabolic Candelabra - E. R. Punshon

The settings in the labyrinthine detective novel by E.R. Punshon are tantalizingly named and may be just the bait to lure you inside the pages of this remarkably well done story. It seems as if we're in the land of LeFanu with a house called Barsley Abbey surrounded by the picturesque lake Heron's Mere, the treacherous quarry Boggart's Hole with a hidden cave, and a wreck of a hut home to a man dubbed Peter the Hermit. The stolen silver items of the title supposedly made by Cellini with several legends attached -- one tells of a curse uttered by one of Cellini's murder victims that will bring death to anyone who keeps them lighted -- only enhance an overall Gothic feel to the story.

But it is the search for a recipe for irresistible chocolates that sends Inspector Bobby Owen and his wife Olive to a small village not far from the manufacturing town of Midwych. Olive has been asked by her friend Mrs. Weston to seek out a woman named Mary Floyd who is known to make these delectable treats so they can sell them at an upcoming church fair. When Owen and his wife track down Miss Floyd they find her in a house in an overgrown forest and living with an invalid mother, an abusive stepfather, and a strange little girl who can communicate with animals and spends more time flitting through the maze of twisting trees of the forest than she does in her home. It's all beginning to sound like something from the Brothers Grimm, isn't it?

Prior to finding Miss Floyd, her mother, and the weird girl named Loo, Owen met up with the local policeman Sergeant Turner who felt it necessary to talk about another legend, this one about two missing El Greco paintings, most likely to give the town an air of mystery Owen thinks. But those missing paintings will play an important part in the story. That and the desire for several people to acquire the secret ingredient in the chocolate recipe which Mary Floyd reveals is the invention of Peter the Hermit. Owen learns that the hermit is a skilled herbalist who spends much of his time concocting a variety of pain relieving medications. This infuriates the local physician, Dr. Maskell, who is losing many of patients to the hermits botched medicines and leads the doctor to call the meddling hermit a "licensed murderer."

Hoping that they can get the recipe for the secret ingredient in the chocolates, a flavor enhancing essence whipped up by the hermit, Owen and Olive head into the woods to find the hermit's hut. When they arrive the place is in a shambles -- furniture thrown about, old books ripped open, and a bloodstain on the floor. Owen notices that although there is freshly chopped firewood outside the axe used to chop that wood is nowhere to be found. And neither is Peter the Hermit. Then a local man named Richard Rawdon, nephew to Sir Andrew Rawdon who owns the forest and land on which the hut is located, disturbs the Owens in their investigation. The situation is further complicated by Rawdon's reluctance to admit why he was visiting the hut at that precise time.

When another local man turns up missing and he is revealed as Charles Clayfoot, owner of a baking and confectionery company that was selling the mysteriously addictive chocolates, Owen is asked to investigate the possibility of foul play. The chocolate recipe, the missing paintings, the cursed candelabra and a variety of strangers popping up in the village looking for one or all of those items make for an intriguing, multilayered and thoroughly captivating detective story. There is a lot to enjoy here from lively and original characters, the creepy settings, and a finale set in a candlelit cave complete with gunfire and fistfights that seems to have been lifted from a Dennis Wheatley thriller.

I'm glad I chose this book by the prolific Punshon to introduce me to his work. He's quite a hit and miss writer which is to be expected from someone who churned out over fifty detective novels as well as historical fiction, adventure and mainstream novels. This one is a definite hit. Most of his mystery novels feature Bobby Owen as detective, but he also wrote about the sleuthing duo of Carter and Bell who appear in five books. Punshon is one of those Golden Age writers who slipped through the cracks. None of his books are currently in print. If you come across an old used copy of Diabolic Candelabra I suggest you buy it then and there. It's one of those refreshing surprises that are waiting to be discovered among the  hundreds of overlooked vintage detective novels. A further recommendation comes in this glowing endorsement emblazoned on the dust jackets of several of the Victor Gollancz editions of Punshon's mysteries:
"What is distinction? The few who achieve it step - plot or no plot - unquestioned into the first rank. We recognized it in Sherlock Holmes, and in Trent's Last Case, in The Mystery of the Villa Rose, in the Father Brown stories and in the works of Mr. E. R. Punshon we salute it every time." -- Dorothy L. Sayers

Friday, October 21, 2011

FFB: Séance - Mark McShane

Myra Savage wants to be famous. But while most people seek their glory in more earthly talents like the performing arts, athletics and politics Myra would like to be known as England’s most prominent psychic. She has shown her gift at an early age and was encouraged by her grandmother to develop it further. That it is not as reliable as she wishes it were doesn’t stop Myra from taking her dreams of fame to criminal extremes. This is the basic premise of Séance by Mark McShane’s first novel, a nifty thriller crammed with nail biting suspense.

Published in the UK under the more familiar name it shares with a cultish movie adaptation, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, McShane’s insidious blend of the supernatural with the suspense thriller is one of the most unique and under-appreciated books of the 1970s. If you have seen the film you do not know the book. The film version (now reviewed in comparison to the novel here) takes great liberties with the story and completely alters Myra’s motive and her character as well as that of her hapless and easily manipulated husband. I think the book is much more successful in how it tells the story of a crime that goes terribly wrong.

Myra’s plan is to "borrow" a little girl, Adriana, the daughter of a wealthy local businessman. She and her husband will make it seem that she had been kidnapped, even to the point of writing a ransom note and demanding money for her safe return. That it is indeed kidnapping and that they are turning into criminals completely eludes Myra. She has only "the Plan" in mind which is for the most part her servile husband's idea. They will return the girl completely unharmed as well as all the money – how can that be a crime? What Myra wants is for the police and everyone who reads the newspapers to know that she found the girl using her psychic gifts. But the reader knows full well that those gifts are dubious.

Bill, her husband, is devoted to Myra. She has manipulated him into believing "the Plan" will turn their life around. She will fulfill her dream and he will have helped her realize her goal. True happiness can only follow, right? When Myra brazenly takes a meeting with the parents of the kidnapped girl and delivers a series of cryptic messages the susceptible mother slowly begins to believe in Myra's powers. The girls' father and the police think otherwise. This is a well controlled, tightly plotted story of suspense with the reader in on every aspect of "the Plan" yet never expecting some of the shocks McShane has in store.

Is Myra a genuine psychic, can she contact the dead? Or is she just another fraud? Myra will tell you that her gift is genuine and that "the Plan" is merely a little push she needs to make her the only psychic in town worth visiting. McShane presents her as someone who truly believes she has a paranormal power but we can only be as skeptical as the police are about her so-called power when she resorts to such an elaborate and illegal scheme to be noticed. She comes off a little batty, but not nearly as demented as the character portrayed by Kim Stanley in the film. The major difference between the book and the film adaptation, however, is that McShane’s Myra surprises herself and the reader with one of her séances when she makes contact with a genuine spirit. Even Bill is frightened. And "the Plan" seems to be veering out of their control and taking on a life of its own. Has she finally tapped into her true gift? Myra may get exactly what she wishes but at a terrible price.

McShane would go on to develop a special brand of supernatural thriller all his own but would use a pseudonym (Marc Lovell) to explore that genre. With titles like An Inquiry into the Existence of Vampires, Dreamers in a Haunted House and The Guardian Spectre he took the tropes of the standard horror novel and turned them inside out creating a world of criminal deception and duplicity coupled with the presence of the paranormal that is unparalleled in the crime novel of the 1970s. His genre blending books would pave the way for supernatural detective novel classics by other writers like Falling Angel (1978) and The Wolfen (1978). Under his own name McShane took off in a completely different direction penning a variety of subversive crime novels including The Crimson Madness of Little Doom (poison pens letters destroy the fabric of a quiet English village), Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street (man with a criminal past fears he may be found out by a chance meeting with a stranger), and The Man Who Left Well Enough (an insanely funny black comedy about a killer for hire in an English village). As Lovell he also wrote a series of espionage parodies featuring his 6'7" spy Appleton Porter, who can speak eighteen languages and is susceptible to blushing fits. Those books include The Spy Game (1980), The Spy Who Had His Head in the Clouds (1982) and Apple Spy in the Sky (1983).



Yes, it's yet another post for the R.I.P. VI Challenge. Make sure you click on the link and visit that page for over 500 posts on other books in the "literature of peril" which according to Carl's rules encompasses crime, mystery, horror and suspense fiction.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: Mehmet Murat Somer

Final stop is Turkey on the whirlwind tour of crime fiction throughout Europe. I have selected Mehmet Murat Somer, a Turkish writer whose highly unusual detective novels feature a sassy and nameless transvestite who begins her career as amateur sleuth in a funny and surprisingly poignant crime thriller called The Prophet Murders. By day a whiz of a computer consultant, by night a night club owner who sports Audrey Hepburn look-alike outfits our hero (and heroine) stumbles upon a series of murders. The victims are all transvestites who all bear the given names of Islamic prophets. The book is not as successful as a whodunit and the mystery is less than gripping. However, the story of these marginalized men who love to dress as women yet still know how to be men in a culture where being out and proud can lead to imprisonment and even execution is the most fascinating part of the book. And the plot takes advantage of some very topical elements (fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, bigotry, gay life as a cultural phenomenon) to show off a world few readers would ever encounter had the book been published as a mainstream novel. By adding a crime plot Murat Somer cleverly manages make material that might be unpalatable to some reading audiences more easy to swallow...so to speak. Added to all that are the lively and hip translations from Kenneth Dakan that make the books all the more accessible and entertaining.

The protagonist is not anything like a stereotype of the tranny with the heart of gold, or worse, the blowzy lampoon of a drag queen who tends to show up in comedy films and gay fiction way too often. She is just as tough in her guise as Audrey as he is in his day life as the brilliant computer geek. He's as handsome in the daytime as glamorous in his Audrey alter ego at night. And she's a literal kickass having mastered some killer moves in Thai kickboxing.  You'll not come across anyone like her in the your usual pile of crime books.

The series has been given two nicknames since the lead character is as yet unnamed. The US  publisher attempted to dub it the Turkish Delight series, but I prefer the more relevant Hop-Çiki-Yaya series. According to the author Hop-Çiki-Yaya is a Turkish derogatory term for queer people derived from a cheerleading chant popular on Turkish colleges in the 1970s. I like it because Murat Somer uses it he way the word "queer" has been taken back by gay activists - an insult turned around by the oppressed to be an empowering term just like the way our hero and heroine finds crime solving to be empowering.

The Hop-Çiki-Yaya series
The Prophet Murders (2008)
The Kiss Murder (2009)
The Gigolo Murders (2009)
The Wig Murders  (coming in 2012)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Shaking "The Monkey's Paw"

illustration by Maurice Grieffenhagen from The Lady of the Barge (Dodd Mead, 1902)
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS:  This essay reveals much about the story.  If you are not familiar with "The Monkey's Paw" you should probably stop right now.

Decades ago I saw one of the most terrifying films of my teenage years. It was Tales from the Crypt. Nothing since has matched it in gore and gruesome imagery, wickedness punished in so macabre a fashion. For months afterwards several of the scenes haunted me while I slept. It was also the first time I heard of "The Monkey's Paw" One of the episodes in the film was an update of the W.W. Jacobs story of wishing for too much. Husband and wife receive an ancient statue that grants three wishes. "Just like the monkey's paw," the wife says. "You know the old story..." For weeks, maybe months, afterwards I spent way too much free time hunting down the story. Even with the trusty Encyclopedia Britannica and the Ridgefield [Connecticut] Library at my disposal finding the story proved very difficult. Probably because I hadn't a clue who wrote it. That would've been an immense help. Since I was a rookie in the world of literary research way back then compared to now I was pretty much stuck. Eventually I found it through utter serendipity. But enough traveling down memory lane and onto my impressions of this classic tale.

In its simplicity "The Monkey's Paw" still has the power to create chills and build suspense and, yes, even surprise the reader. I can't recall what my first impressions of the tale were when I read over forty years ago, but having pored over the story recently I was struck but why it is still a classic. It's practically a textbook case for anyone who is thinking of writing a suspense tale or a ghost story. Each element is introduced at the precisely the right time and there is no heavy handed repetition. There is no gratuitous gore that seems to be required these days. And, thankfully, there is no rational explanation offered at the end to ruin all the previous chills.

Herbert White meets up with an old war buddy and invites him to his home for an evening visit. The purpose is to complete a story he told of a monkey's paw and an old fakir. The sergeant-major has brought the paw with him and tells the story:
It had a spell put on it by an old fakir....a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives and those who interfered did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.
White, his wife and son soon learn that the soldier had his three wishes granted and would rather have the paw destroyed than pass it on to anyone else. When pressed for more details he tells his hosts that the first owner used his third wish to wish for death and that was how he came into possession of the paw. With that he tosses the paw into the fireplace, but White rushes to the hearth and retrieves it before it is completely destroyed. The soldier leaves and warns them to "wish for something sensible." At the son's urging the father wishes for some money £200. Nothing immediately happens and they turn in for the night. Of course, only trouble can follow.

The story is neatly divided in three sections and primarily deals with three characters -- Mr. White, his wife and their son. In the first section we are introduced to the wish motif and the family makes their first wish. In the second half they make their second wish. In the third and eeriest portion the husband ends their ordeal with a final wish -- the only wise wish the family ever makes. The old fairy tale motifs are all present and indeed Mrs. White at one point says, "Sounds like the Arabian Nights." There is some making fun of the whole idea and we get the idea that the family is not too believing of the powerful magic they have come into contact with. Jacobs describes the son as "frivolous" and he mocks the idea by telling his father to wish to be an emperor to escape his nagging wife, Mrs. White asks the husband to wish her to have four hands and they all laugh at the prospect of getting what one truly desires. The reader knows only too well that this family is doomed.

When Mr. and Mrs. White realize that in following the son's suggestion for money they have altered their lives in a horrible way they panic. The money comes to them as compensation for a gruesome accident at the factory where their son worked. He has died at the hands of the machinery. Mrs. White immediately wants to wish her son back to life and runs to find the paw. There is a struggle and an argument. The family is beginning to learn that there is strange magic at work that they truly can defy the laws of nature. The husband is reluctant but is powerless at the maniacal urging of his wife and when he refuses to make the wish she does so herself.

It is at this point that Jacobs uses the best tool of the writer of a ghost story -- the power of suggestion. We feel the terror of the husband and know the longing of the wife for her son. There is a terrible knocking at the door, the wife rushes downstairs and the reader remains upstairs with the husband who dare not move from his spot. While he envisions what must have happened to his son, remembering the accident, his wife frantically tries to open the door but has trouble with the bolt. The reader is wondering as well: Will she see her son? Or is it something else? What will happen to her? The husband at last makes the final and inevitable wish -- the only sensible wish made while the paw was theirs those brief fateful days.

And the story ends with an eerie image complete with a poignant sound effect that sends a final frisson up your spine:
A cold wind rushed up the staircase and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.
It is certain that the echo of that misery-filled wail reached all the way to the cemetery where no doubt it settled like a mournful shroud on the still undisturbed grave of their hapless son.



This article is posted by request. (Thank you, Neer, for reminding me that I already had something on Jacob's masterful tale.) The essay in a slightly different form originally appeared at "The Weird Review" back in 2001. Devotees of the traditional ghost story are encouraged to investigate that website, owned by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, for a wide variety of reviews and essays on supernatural literature.

"The Monkey's Paw" was originally published in The Lady of the Barge (London: Harper & Brothers, 1902) and (New York: Dodd Mead, 1902). Copies are available via the usual used bookseller sources and are relatively cheap if you are wiling to settle for the Penguin reprint paperback rather than a first edition. The story is available to read for free at Gaslight and as a free download in audio format at Project Gutenberg. I'm sure it can be found other places in the digital airspace as well.

This is yet another of my contributions for Carl V's R.I.P. VI Challenge. For a change -- a post in the short story category.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Caretaker of Lorne Field - Dave Zeltserman

I may get flack for what I am about to do, but here goes nothing. Dave Zeltserman’s exceptional novel The Caretaker of Lorne Field is a genre blending true original combining elements of the horror novel, the crime novel and...the fairy tale. And now that I’ve got you either scratching your head or rolling your eyes let me explain.

As I read this unusual novel I couldn’t help but think of the gruesome tales of Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, and even the Arabian Nights. W.W. Jacobs’ supernatural classic “The Monkey’s Paw” a story about the horrific consequences of wishing for too much and itself a story influenced by fairy tales was another that kept popping into my brain. Like the best of fairy tales Zeltserman’s book is so simple and so stripped down that the essential plot can be told in a few sentences. A man is charged with following the rules in a baroque contract outlining the meticulous care of a vast field that daily is overgrown with bothersome weeds. It is his task to remove all the weeds every day. If he doesn’t, the weeds will grow to gigantic proportions, uproot themselves, transform into monsters called Aukowies and take over the world. Each day he removes the weeds and burns them, but during the night they have all grown back. It is a life of endless drudgery. Then someone breaks a rule in the sacred contract. The characters are forced to make decisions they might otherwise not have in trying to make things right but only end up breaking more rules leading to the inevitable disaster. No happy ending here. It's fairy tale noir.

Following rules to the letter for fear of dire consequences is the fundamental rule of many fairy tales notably "Rapunzel" (which coincidentally has a lot to do with gardening as well) and especially "Bluebeard." That story about the wife told never to open the door to a forbidden room has been borrowed and recycled by many writers, even turned into a basic trope of hundreds of horror movies, but it has its origins in a fairy tale. Curiosity gets the better of the Bluebeard's last wife, but it is something more compelling that leads the characters to their destruction in Zeltserman's book.

Loyalty, filial love, and the preservation of the family are in conflict with Jack Durkin's stubbornness. He insists on fulfilling his contract as the caretaker no matter how much misery it brings his family. They live in poverty, eating corn flakes for dinner, and scrimping on their $8000 a year received from the town council for keeping at bay the monsters Durkin promises will show up if he fails at his weeding job.  His eldest son Lester, a lazy rebel, hates the fact he is next in line according to the contract but the younger son, Bert, shows devotion to his father and is eager to both believe him and carry on the dreaded job.  It is Lydia, his wife, who is fed up with it all and who will in secret take the contract to a lawyer who she hopes will find some loophole that will allow her family to escape its claustrophobic rules thus giving them back a real life.

What happens to the Durkins then is best left to the reader to discover for himself. The fairy tale premise transforms into a crime tale about child neglect and the suspicion of beating and maiming. Durkin and his family try to escape the contract that imprisoned them but pay dearly for their dreams of a better life. Remarkably, Zeltserman manages to imbue the pages with a miasma of ambiguity so that the reader is never really sure that Durkin is imagining the Aukowies or if they really exist hidden deep in the soil waiting patiently to grow immense and wreck havoc. The reader is compelled to read on hoping that somehow Durkin can find his way back to normalcy amid all the chaos erupting around him. But it is a dreaded journey that gets bleaker and more disturbing as it draws closer to the inescapable horrific finale.

This is the first book by Dave Zeltserman I have read. I will be looking for his other novels which I see from his website range from tame thrillers to hardcore noir novels of crime and violence. That he is not better known and better celebrated is an utter mystery to me. Based on The Caretaker of Lorne Field alone -- a truly original, imaginative and exciting book -- it is clear to me that he is one of the more accomplished crime writers we have today.


 This is one of many posts I am contributing to the R.I.P. VI Reading Challenge. In this case it doesn't stand for recquiescat in pace. It's R[eaders] I[mbibing] P[eril]. Carl V., who blogs at Stainless Steel Dropping, has for the past six years asked bloggers to read (or watch) and review mystery, supernatural, horror, and dark fantasy works (novels, short stories and movies) throughout September and October and share their thoughts with the blogging world. How could I resist taking part in something so obviously up my alley? When you see this eerie logo at the bottom of a post now you'll know what it means.

Friday, October 14, 2011

FFB: The Secrets of Dr Taverner - Dion Fortune

Ash Tree Press edition (2000)
My October salute to forgotten supernatural and occult works of fiction continues with this contribution to the occult detective genre by Dion Fortune. In reality Violet Mary Firth, Fortune was a staunch believer in past lives and reincarnation. She was even the founder of her own occult society The Fraternity of the Inner Light (now known as The Society of Inner Light).

Originally published in 1926, The Secrets of Dr. Taverner is a collection of short stories detailing the lives of the troubled patients who come to the doctor who runs a nursing home for people with unusual mental disorders. He is assisted in the care of these patients by Dr. Rhodes, the medical superintendent, and narrator of the stories. The tales run the gamut of the occult and the supernatural and include vampirism, astral projection, necromancy, cursed objects, spirit communication, spectral manifestations, and very often mind control.

I particularly liked "The Scented Poppies" as it is a good example of the true occult detective. Unlike most of the tales in the collection this one is structured like a detective story with Dr. Taverner doing genuine criminal investigation. It reminded me of the best of Conan Doyle's work in the second half of the story when he adopts a disguise and lays a trap for an antiquarian acting as Irving's accessory.

A wealthy businessman seeks out Dr. Taverner and tells a tale of questionable deaths. Each time he makes out a new will the principal legatee commits suicide. Suspicion falls on the youngest in the line of heirs --Irving, a ne'er-do-well with a skill for interior decorating. Taverner and Rhodes soon learn that Irving had sent gifts of poppies to each of the suicide victims. The poppies had a strong and peculiar odor that Taverner believes to have hypnotic occult powers. They intercept the latest gift and examine the flowers discovering strange seeds hidden inside one as well as a moonstone. When Rhodes handles the moonstone he undergoes a series of rapid association of thoughts leading from memories of his mother to wanting to be rid of the jewel. And Taverner grabs the jewel out of Rhodes' hand before he can follow through with a desire to hurl both himself and the jewel out the open window.

Dr. Taverner always explains much of the other worldly phenomena he and Dr Rhodes encounter in terms of the human soul. Love, or more accurately the lack of the proper love, are often are the root cause of all the strange events. He talks of "souls in dungeons" and admonishes his partner for not showing compassion for their patients.
The more you see of human nature, the less you feel inclined to condemn it, for you realize how hard it has struggled. No one does wrong because he likes it, but because it is the lesser of the two evils.
Llewellyn trade paperback edition (1978)
In "Blood-Lust," for example, Donald Craigie who develops an unearthly desire to consume the blood of animals (and nearly his fiancée's) is described as a "spirit parasite." Arnold Black, who has been overcome with an addiction to speed and chase and is in danger of killing himself has been hypnotized by a strange sort of glamour. When asked how he feels when engaging in his fast driving and daredevil airplane piloting Black replies, "I feel as if I were in love." Taverner is also often trying to reunite souls separated from one another due to improper shifts in reincarnation. In "The Soul that Would Not Be Born" a man kisses a woman, they look deeply into each other's eyes and recognize each other from previous lives. It is a fairy tale-like story where the power of the kiss solves all problems and brings about true love.

These stories have much in common with similar occult detective stories by Margery Lawrence whose Dr. Miles Pennoyer spends much of his time doing battle with weird manifestations that are the result of love gone wrong or a child being separated from its parent. Even L. Adams Beck's Dr. James Livingstone, who appears in The Openers of the Gate (1930), devotes much of his time to reuniting lost loves or exorcising ghosts who are mourning their past love lives. It seems to be a peculiarity of women writers who create physicians or psychiatrists who investigate occult disturbances that love and the loss of love are at the bottom of all the ghostly business.

Dion Fortune was a woman of mystery in her own right and I won't attempt to give even a smidgen of biography which is shrouded in ambiguity and secrets that rival those found in her fiction. You can start here for an overview of her life. There are currently four Dion Fortune biographies. If you can find a cheap copy of the Ash-Tree Press reissue of ...Dr Taverner you can read Jack Adrian's usual thoroughly researched and lengthy introduction - more of a biography in miniature than an assessment of the book and stories.

Although Fortune wrote more non-fiction works on her belief in the occult and the arcane, it is her fiction that is far more interesting and of course entertaining. Her complete fictional output is listed below. Much of it, including The Secrets of Dr. Taverner, is obtainable in the used book market at reasonable prices.

The Secrets of Dr. Taverner (1926)
The Demon Lover (1927)
The Winged Bull (1935)
The Goat-Foot God (1936)
Sea Priestess (1938)
Moon Magic (1956)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

NEW STUFF: The Return of Shell Scott

Hey, all you babes and guys out there who've been craving one last fling with the white haired, buzzcut sporting Shell Scott!

Astounding news from Linda Pendleton is that the final novel in Richard S. Prather's series about this great private eye has been released in Kindle format. For all of us who prefer the real thing in books, as opposed to the electronic format, a trade paperback of The Death Gods is on the way.

For more info and how and where to purchase your own eBook go to Linda's blog My Drops of Ink.

Many thanks to Linda for the email with this exciting news. I eagerly await the real book. You can bet I'll be one of the first ones in line (digital or otherwise) to get a copy.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass - Ancient & Modern Greece

Opa!

Every time someone orders flaming saganaki in a Greek restaurant out here in Chicago the entire restaurant shouts out "Opa!" I think this is something oddly peculiar to Greek restaurants in the Windy City, especially if you happen to be eating at The Parthenon, a 40 year old restaurant in GreekTown where the dish of cheese set on fire originated. Anyway, I couldn't resist that since we're in Greece this week for the EuroPass Challenge sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise. For your reading pleasure I have found a few books set in both ancient and modern Greece.

Gladys Mitchell wrote two books set in Greece. They are slightly related to each other. First is Come Away, Death (1937) which takes Mrs. Bradley on a tour of Greece along with twelve others including the tour host Sir Rudri Hopkinson who plans to recreate rituals at the ruined temples in hopes of summoning the goddess Demeter. Mysterious happenings with a statue, poisonous vipers, blood sacrifice and a severed head all play a part in this typically odd detective story from the eccentric Gladys Mitchell and her equally eccentric psychiatrist sleuth Dame Beatrice Bradley.

Over forty years later Mitchell returned to Greece in Lament for Leto (1971). As with Christie who re-used a character from At Bertram's Hotel in her later book Nemesis, Mitchell recycles a character from Come Away, Death. It is Ronald Dick (one of the travelers in the earlier book) who fortuitously runs into Mrs. Bradley. He tells her he is organizing another tour of the islands this time as a cruise. Mrs. Bradley agrees to join his group and no sooner are they at sea then strange events take place. There is a jewelry theft on board ship and later the body of a woman is found at the foot of the sea cliff known as Sappho's Leap. Mrs. Bradley does her usual inimitable turn as detective to reveal the culprit.

For those who enjoy historical mysteries I can highly recommend the trio of books by Paul Doherty which feature Alexander the Great and his physician/advisor Telemon. I previously reviewed at length the second book The Godless Man which you can read here. Each of the books features at least one impossible crime and sometimes also a locked room mystery. There are multiple crimes committed by various gruesome means. Often the books will have more than one murderer at work. It is war time and there is much skulduggery and espionage working their insidious way into the intricate, sometimes complex, but thoroughly engaging stories.

In the first book, The House of Death, Telemon must discover the identity of a mysterious killer who leaves behind puzzling messages alluding to passages in The Iliad and the playwright Euripides. The Godless Man is similar with a master spy calling himself The Centaur plaguing Ephesus with killings. The last book, The Gates of Hell, takes place during Alexander's siege of Halicarnasus and involves the search for a manuscript in code that holds the key to a hidden treasure and the secret to capturing the city. Of course, several murders occur throughout the story including one committed in a sealed and haunted room. I like this series, but they may not be for readers who shy away from books with high body counts and graphically described murders and violence. War ain't a pretty thing, my friends, and it was nastier than Hell in ancient times according to Doherty.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

COOL FLICKS: Supernatural (1933)

The "Carole-Tennial (+3)" blogathon celebrating the 103rd birthday of Carole Lombard started October 6 and today is the last day. Leave it to me to get my contribution in under the wire. Anyone interested in furthering their knowledge of this fine actress and her brief two decades in movies should go to the Carole & Co. blog for wide selection of reviews of her films, impressions about the actress and her life, and other writings and musings.

I chose to watch her little known supernatural thriller aptly called Supernatural. While elsewhere on the internet the film has been dismissed and in some cases reviled I found it an intriguing and odd film. Of course it helps if you're an avid fan of this entire genre as well as someone who enjoys watching the acting styles of the early movies. On the whole it's a mixed bag of a movie but with a striking production design and atmospheric camera work that brings to mind a phrase coined for the musical version of Lombard's well known 20th Century. When that movie was turned into a stage production one critic jibed: "It’s ominous when an audience leaves the musical whistling the scenery." Similarly with Supernatural the sets, the cinematography and the overall look of the production are more interesting than the story or the acting.

The story is an unusual blend of science fiction, ghost story and crime film.  The opening with its three epigraphs emblazoned across the screen is spooky lettering promises us a story dealing with the dead. The delivering warnings taken from three different religious texts (Christian, Asian and Islam) about the dangers of dealing with the dead, of opening graves and "casting out unclean spirits." This is followed by a melodramatic montage composed of newspaper snippets and voice-overs informing us of the impending execution of Ruth Rogen (histrionic Vivienne Osborne), a murderess who "killed three of her lovers in a wild orgy." Shortly thereafter we're in the office of the prison warden who is in conference with Dr. Houston (H.B. Warner), a psychologist with interest in the psychic world. Houston convinces the warden to donate Rogen's body to science - specifically Houston's own experiments. He has a theory about evil being transferred from a soul at the point of death. Houston points out that there often are crime waves committed just after a criminal is executed. He believes that these imitators have been possessed by the spirit of the executed criminal. He goes on to explain his experiments with "nitrogenic rays - ultraviolet rays given off by the body" and wants to capture Ruth's evil personality to prevent it causing more harm. The Warden responds, "Hmm. Seems kind of creepy when you think of it." Sadly, this is the level of the scriptwriting throughout the movie.

Then we get to know Paul Bavian (William Farnum in an unctuous performance) a phoney spiritualist who combs the newspapers looking for wealthy individuals who have recently suffered a death in the family. He preys on these wealthy people putting on his fake spook shows and draining them of their hefty bank accounts. His latest mark is Roma Courtney (Lombard), recent heir to her dead millionaire brother's fortune. Bavian has broken into the Courtney home, found where her brother's body was being kept for the wake, and made a death mask of his face for use in a fraudulent seance later in the movie. Bavian we learn was also acquainted with Rogen and was responsible for turning her into the police.

The story thus connects Ruth with Bavian who is connected to Roma. Anyone familiar with these old fashioned movies can tell exactly what is going to happen when Ruth consents to donating her body to science with dreams of reaching out from beyond the grave and carrying out a cruel vengeance. It is only a matter of time before Roma, who just happens to be a patient of Dr Houston, visits him interrupting him in his outrageous experiment just at the crucial moment.


The bulk of the movie is run-of-the-mill. Padded with sentimental scenes of Roma longing for her dead brother, lame comic relief from the gluttonous family lawyer, expository speeches that set up the supernatural elements, and the usual close-ups of newspaper articles filling in other story elements it doesn't seem like it will amount to much of anything. Hackneyed writing doesn't help matters much either. The performances -- especially Lombard who is given nothing much to do but stroll around despondently for the first half -- are mostly lackluster. Only Farnum and Beryl Mercer as a drunken blackmailing busybody of a landlady offer anything remotely interesting. It is only when Roma visits Dr. Houston's plush penthouse equipped with glass walled laboratory and the transferal of Ruth's spirit to Roma's body takes place that the movie finally picks up.

Publicity still with Randolph Scott and Lombard for Supernatural

Paul Bavian begins to realize that Roma and Ruth have a lot in common
Lombard now having to convey the possession of a hysterical killer bent on murderous revenge shows some of her considerable acting talent here. Her bland portrayal of the doe-eyed, depressed and drippy Roma gives way to a fast talking, mean spirited vamp. The camera zooms in on close-ups of her malevolent facial expressions giving Lombard a chance to display her skill in the raised one eyebrow trick. Her scenes with Farnum in Ruth's apartment are the best in an otherwise mediocre movie.

Bavian succumbs to the deadly charms of the possessed Roma
When the script dispenses with dialog and relies solely on the camera and the actor's faces to tell the story the movie is also at its eerie best. There is a scene following the blackmailing landlady's murder that is a good example. Bavian kills without thinking and knows that in fifteen minutes Roma and her boyfriend will be stopping by for a seance. He looks out and watches the speeding trolley cars passing by on the tracks below his hovel of an apartment. We hear nothing but the sound of the train wheels clacking on the rails as rain continues to fall steadily. A close-up of the train's sparking wheels is intercut with Bavian's leering face. He looks over his shoulder back to the room where the body lies on the couch. The scene fades out and fades back in on the clock showing a passage of fifteen minutes. the body of the landlady is nowhere in sight but we know exactly what Bavian did with it.

This is certainly is not among the best of Lombard's films, but Supernatural is not the stinker that most people make it out to be. Fans of old time movies will find a few very well done scenes to make it worth your while should be lucky enough to find a copy. The movie still is out there in VHS video format and you can probably find a used copy. A professional DVD, however, does not exist. The only DVD versions are available from a few independent online sellers. I got mine from someone who calls himself Movie Detective. It's one of the better homemade DVDs I've purchased and the print quality is exceptional - probably made from the old MCA VHS videotape. Supernatural is a curiosity for sure. For fans of these old thrillers with science fiction and supernatural elements I would say it's worth a look. Just don't expect a masterpiece.