Tuesday, December 24, 2013

...And to All a Good Night!

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice
...and all the rest of it, gang!

This makes me nostalgic for Christmases past and reminds me of all the people I wish I could be with who made so many holidays so memorable. That's a good thing because I'm not good with the holidays these days.

Wishing a magical holiday to all you wonderful people out there in the dark!

Friday, December 20, 2013

FFB: Death on the High C's - Robert Barnard

Gaylene Ffrench isn't bothered by typecasting. In the role of Maddalena in the Northern Opera Company of Manchester's latest production of Rigoletto she is relishing playing a vulgar prostitute. But if you ask her fellow cast members they'd tell you she's not acting at all.

The more we get to know Gaylene the more we see that she is loud, brash, rude and licentious. Between her promiscuous come-ons to every male member of the cast and her frequent insults hurled at the more talented female singers Gaylene has managed to make enemies of the entire company. They dislike Gaylene so intensely that when two attempts are made on her life they are not taken seriously. Especially when, in her constant grasping at any type of publicity, she runs to the newspapers rather than the police. However, when she dies bizarrely via an electrified doorknob outside her dressing room the opera company must reassess those previous accidents and start looking for a murderer among themselves.

Death on the High C's (1977) was Robert Barnard's third detective novel. He has a field day satirizing the many vain and egotistical performers so often lampooned in novels about opera singers, but he is also highly knowledgeable about the world of opera. As is the police detective Superintendent Nichols who at first plays dumb about the music in order to catch the cast and crew off guard. If there is anything to criticize it is an assumption on Barnard's part that his readers are as expert in the world of opera as he is. As much as I dislike "info dumping" a little more background on some of the plots of the operas and composers would have been appreciated by a rookie opera fan like myself. I resorted to Google to help fill in the gaps that Barnard and Nichols and the Northern Opera Company omitted.

The writing is at times arch and ostentatious with a wry humor that on occasion made me laugh out loud. Every now and then the satirical touches are tempered with moments of quiet drama as in the scene when we learn that the singer playing Rigoletto is taking care of a severely disabled young girl in his home, a fact he'd prefer to keep very private. For the most part though this early Barnard mystery novel is less somber than some of his later books. His wit and clever plotting reminded me more of Christianna Brand than Agatha Christie who he greatly admired.

Today is a salute to the recently departed Robert Barnard. For more about his wonderful detective novels and crime fiction please visit Patti Abbott's blog where you will find links to the other contributions for Fridays Forgotten Books.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent Ghosts 2013: "The World in Solemn Stillness Lay"

Each year at this wintry holiday time Loren Eaton who blogs at I Saw Lightning Fall invites bloggers and creative writers to contribute vignettes for his Advent Ghosts celebration. It's a Flash Fiction Challenge of sorts but with a word limit set at exactly 100. No more, no less. It's also his community tribute to the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. This year I was lucky enough to be invited to participate. Here's my contribution. It's inspired by a well known M.R. James story.

"The World in Solemn Stillness Lay"

Yesterday there was a light in the window of the steeple.  Now it was out.

Yesterday, a blanket of snow untouched before the church. Now there were footprints.

Yesterday, carolers singing near the pine trees. Now they were gone.

Was it digital trickery? The picture must alter over time, he thought. Some clever technological magic. But it was a woodcut on handmade paper colored with inks, not a photo. An old fashioned Christmas card, an old fashioned image. He wasn't frightened, just mystified.

Then he looked at the floor and saw the puddle and a trail of tiny scarlet footprints.

For more chilling vignettes of a mere one hundred words please visit Loren's blog where he has gathered all the links from the participating writer's various blogs. Wishing a very merry Christmas to all you wonderful people out there in the dark.

Friday, December 13, 2013

FFB: Hot Freeze - Martin Brett

 Michel Garfin is the man to go to in Montreal if you have a particularly nasty family secret you need to keep quiet. But call him Mike.  Only the Chief of Police calls him Michel and only because he doesn't speak any English.  Oh, and while we're talking about his name its GAR-fin, pronounced just like its spelled, not Gar-FAN as if it were French. He's Irish/French Canadian and though he's bilingual and lived in Montreal most his life where he was once on the Royal Mounted Police Force he could have stepped out of an office in Hammet's San Francisco or Chandler's L.A.  Hot Freeze (1954) marks Mike Garfin's first appearance out of three crime novels.

Montreal is a frigid violent world of illegal casinos luring gamblers to the barbotte and fan tan tables, brothels where the prostitutes serve as both companions and informers, and home to a wealthy dysfunctional family that would be all too familiar to Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe. The sexual imbroglio in the Astley/Remington household may call to mind the tawdriness of The Big Sleep or the family secrets that dominate Ross Macdonald's novels. But its the omnipresent, near paranormal influence of the wintry weather in Montreal becoming a formidable additional character almost as brutal as the human villains that reminds the reader he is far from the mean streets of California.

Mike is hired by Mrs. Remington to find out how her son Gerald is obtaining such a large amount of money. He receives an allowance but his ostentatious spending raises suspicions. He must be getting more money from some other source, she thinks. Mike soon learns that there are actually two families in the Remington home and that Mrs. Remington was previously married. Gerald and his sister Geraldine provide us the earliest examples of the unbridled sexuality that pervades the book.

Gerald is yet another of the handsome indiscriminate gay men, always flirting, always alluding, that one finds in 1950s private eye novels. It's his sex life that triggers the blackmail flag in Mike's mind as the possible source of the extra money. Geraldine is clearly a Carmen Sternwood knock-off but her insatiable taste for men eventually unearths a surprising facet to her character that all but erases any reminders of Chandler's teenage nympho. Then there's Marian, Mrs Remington's stepdaughter, who makes all too clear that she despises all of the Astleys and resents them living in her home.

Originally Mike plans to tail Gerald, find out his habits and bring the case to a quick close. Mike is sure that Gerald is blackmailing some wealthy influential man who can't risk having his sexual predilections uncovered. But Gerald surprises Mike by inviting him along to a barbotte casino and all thoughts of blackmail are almost entirely put out of Mike's mind when he sees how incredibly lucky Gerald is at the gaming tables.

Enter Tom Littleton, Mike's one time partner in the Mounties when they were both cops back in Winnipeg. Littleton is undercover as part of a narcotics investigation and he urges Mike to keep him that way by not mentioning his name. Mike in order to save his hide, however, lies about working with the RCMP and lets slip Littleton's name. When he returns later that night to find Littleton dead in the courtyard of his apartment building he is devastated. Up to this point Mike was all tough guy like many of the eyes of his day, but now we see a new side. A crowd of gawkers gather round the fence when Littleton's body is being taken away and Mike overhears them gossiping about another dead drunk who froze himself to death.
I kept my mouth shut, not answering any questions. I climbed into the back of the wagon when they were ready to go and sat near the bunched up thing that had been Tom. Grown men, they say, don't have such emotions. Grown men do. I sat with the tips of my fingers touching his frozen head and vowed to do slow murder to avenge this one.
The addition of this fraternal love between former police partners at times is heartbreaking. Mike is overcome with emotion several times during the novel. He suspects an insidious murder method and when it is confirmed that drugs are involved it only fuels his vengeful drive.

Brett toys with Chandleresque prose but makes it all his own as Montreal and Canadian culture dominate the proceedings. Hot Freeze is one of the better examples of a private eye novel that will appeal to a variety of crime fiction tastes. Enough tough guy manner and sex to satisfy the hardboiled crowd, real crimes committed for believable reasons for those who crave documentary style realism, quirky characters of truly original molds (including an acrobat dwarf with a sadistic side!) for lovers of offbeat fiction, and good investigating with a few examples of well placed clues for the detective novel fans. Above all there is an humanizing emotional undercurrent that controls every behavior in the violent and corrupt world of a bitter and savage Montreal.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

ODDITIES: Department of Uncollectable Collectibles

I get a lot of book catalogs in my email and I peruse them mostly for my select interests: Victorian sensation fiction and obscure detective, supernatural and adventure fiction. Every now and then pulp magazines strike my fancy. While looking over the pulps offered by Michael John Thompson, a bookseller in British Columbia, I came across one of the most absurd catalog listings ever. It's reproduced below (with some typos fixed) along with the illustration that accompanies the listing.

I'd file this under "Why Bother?" Seems it was included in the catalog only for the amusement of the bookseller and his customers. He's right about that artwork. It's a real nightmare.


HODGSON, William Hope [marginal interest].
$30.00 CAD

First edition. Quarto, original pictorial wrappers, stapled at spine. A fanzine, issued in an edition of 104 numbered copies, this being copy #56. 17 pp. Contains Editorials and Convention reports, no fiction. Most notably, it bears perhaps the singularly worst drawing ever to illustrate a Hodgson story, the cover artwork, which is by Bill Grant. The editor prints a long report on the convention, an SF con; and reproduces the signatures of the likes of Bok, Leiber, Williamson et al., but it is of little interest. In fact, there really is nothing of interest in this fanzine at all except for the atrocious cover artwork. It's not like anybody needs to buy this thing - it's hideous. A very good copy in original wrappers, if that matters.

You can click to enlarge this, but be prepared for a real horror show.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

IN BRIEF: It Was Locked - John Hawk

Ready for another weekend house party gone wrong? The myriad guest list includes an world renowned explorer, a Russian prince, a woman violinist, four titled aristocrats and a young British poet. Who'd turn down that party? You'll even be greeted by a suspicious butler of French extraction. Add one locked room, one murder victim, a curious weapon and the familiar motif of the "wrong man accused" and you have It Was Locked (1930), yet another formulaic detective novel drawing upon tropes already getting cliche as we enter the third decade of the twentieth century. Why then did I accept the invitation to this party? Well, there were enough oddities to keep me turning the pages. Too bad nothing really paid off.

An overly sensitive poet allows his wounded pride to get the better of him and he flees a weekend house party after being humiliated by a beautiful woman, her fiancée and a couple of other guests. Rather than subject himself to further embarrassment by reading his flowery love poetry to the guests as requested by Lady Dorothy, his hostess, Robin packs his bag, locks the door to his room, pockets the key unknowingly, and escapes via his bedroom window. Minutes later Lord Edward Winston goes missing. The search is on for both the missing earl and the mysteriously absent poet who was expected to entertain the guests. Lord Edward is found stabbed in the locked bedroom and Robin is immediately suspected of the murder.

An involved inquest that reads more like a very biased criminal trial further implicates Robin when the coroner’s jury finds a verdict of murder and names Robin as the evil deed doer. He is arrested, jailed, and spends most of the book pining over his rash decision to run away. Meanwhile, the police inspector and all of Robin's friends believe wholeheartedly in the poet's innocence and do their best to find the true culprit. How could such a docile childish young man ever kill anyone, they variously muse? The solution to the crime hinges on the murder weapon, a hunting knife of French Canadian manufacture bearing some incriminating initials. Assiduous detective work reveals the weapon is tied to a long hidden blood feud having its origins in the forests of Canada where trappers do a lot of heavy drinking and carry life long grudges.

This is supposedly a locked room puzzle as suggested by the bland title. The puzzle in this one -- how did the body get in the room if Robin had the key and no duplicate key existed? That part of the story offered so many interesting possibilities but the reason is explained, not so believably, in a very offhand manner. Hawk apparently didn't care how the body got there and none of his characters questioned how it mysteriously moved from its hiding place to its position when the door was broken down. Sloppy writing and careless plotting fairly ruins an intermittently entertaining detective novel that turns into a thriller in the final chapters.

It Was Locked, a rather hard to find book with only two editions in hardcover and no paperback reprints available, is barely worth tracking down unless you are interested in the author’s very strange ideas of Canada of the 1920s. Hawk would have us believe French Canada is as stereotypically savage and violent as a pulp writer’s idea of Italy being populated with nothing but Mafioso thugs.

Friday, December 6, 2013

FFB: The Judas Cat - Dorothy Salisbury Davis

A mysterious death, a bizarre murder method, a locked room, inheritance schemes, fraudulent wills, secrets galore and a horde of suspects unwilling to cooperate -- all the makings of a grand old detective novel of the old-fashioned school. Dorothy Salisbury Davis takes these intriguing ingredients of a traditional whodunit recipe and created The Judas Cat (1949). She whips up a tale of long held family secrets while simultaneously exploring the effects of small town's population at the mercy of corrupt businessmen and an opportunistic mayor.

The death of 92 year-old Andy Mattson arouses the curiosity of reporter Alex Whiting and Chief Waterman. The man is found in his locked home with a starving and out of control cat prowling the outer room. Mattson died from an apparent heart attack according to the coroner, but with a look of utter terror on his face that leaves Alex Whiting asking several questions. What exactly happened in that room to terrify the old man? Was he frightened to death? Why was the room locked? Why did the cat need to be killed to prevent it from attacking the two men investigating the scene? Delving into the life of the reclusive nonagenarian Whiting and Waterman uncover a secret side to Andy Mattson known to only a few. He was a toymaker of ingeniously designed wooden wind-up figures and had sold many of them to a toy manufacturing factory in the next town over. Mattson was also a mathematical wizard with superior engineering skills and had collaborated on some designs for hydraulic equipment during World War 2. Both the toy designs and hydraulic equipment lead to another inquiry into the legal ramifications of patent ownership that complicate the plot and provide a strong motive for Mattson's possible murder. Add to these facts the search for a hidden will and there is quite a bit of fuel that make Mattson's death seem less than natural.

Davis in her first crime novel shows a mastery of both plotting and characterization. Though on the surface it has the appeal of a puzzling detective novel at the heart of the novel is a profound study of the after effects of a violent death on the entire population of a town. From the nosy neighbor Maude who clearly knows a lot more than she's willing to tell to the Machiavellian town mayor to a sinister veterinarian the cast of characters is rife with intriguing personalities with plenty of skeletons in their closets. A climactic town council meeting that s calls into question the investigative methods of Chief Waterman and his unorthodox use of a newspaper reporter as a deputy is one of the highlights of the story. During the meeting the chief accuses the mayor of plotting with wealthy Henry Addison, owner of Addison Industries and is sure that some business chicanery is at the heart of Mattson's death.

Anthony Boucher one of mysterydom's most insightful and prescient critics, called The Judas Cat "rewardingly perceptive novel" and predicted that Davis would be a writer to watch in the future. She proved to live up to the promise of this first captivating novel with a run of top notch suspense stories that further developed the crime novel and elevated out of the realm of the too often maligned whodunit.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

FFB: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives - Sarah Weinman, editor

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Lives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
edited and introduced by Sarah Weinman
Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 978-0143122548
384 pages $16.00
Publication date: August 2013

Yes, it's a brand new book and it's my choice for Friday's Forgotten Book. I guess this is a cheat of sorts. Since many of these women writers are utterly forgotten (but not by me -- I've written about many of their novels here) and this review is months overdue (I finished this book back in August) it's time to get it up on the blog.

Sarah Weinman has gathered together an impressive array of woman mystery writers who were instrumental in the development of a subgenre she likes to call domestic suspense. The anthology brings together pioneers in crime fiction like Margaret Millar, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong with stalwarts like Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, and Dorothy B. Hughes. Rounding out the group are the modern and all too often forgotten writers like Nedra Tyre and Celia Fremlin, and wonderful new finds like Joyce Harrington and Barbara Callahan. There are a total of fourteen women represented with a variety of stories that run the gamut from creepy and atmospheric to outright nasty. There is even a surprise happy ending delivered in "Everybody Needs a Mink", an atypically lighthearted story from Hughes normally known for her novels of paranoia and dread.

I would’ve liked a better story from Margaret Millar than her oft anthologized "The People Across the Canyon", a story even if you have never read it before will seem very familiar as it recycles an idea used too frequently in crime fiction. The story from Shirley Jackson, a master of both the novel and short story, is unfortunately the weakest and least satisfying in the collection. There has to be a better example from her pen than "Louisa, Please Come Home" which lacked bite and pizazz compared with the quality of the others selected. But the rest of the stories each have something to recommend them. Below are highlights from half the collection.

"A Nice Place to Stay" by Nedra Tyre
Tyre was a regular contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine where she published over forty short stories. In this tale she captures the voice of a loner woman whose only desire is a comfortable life, good food and a nice place to stay. An opportunistic lawyer jumps on her case and turns her into tool to advance his career. But the narrator has a surprise in store for all his hard work.

"Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree" by Helen Nielsen
I am a big fan of Nielsen’s novels and also her TV scripts for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In this story she takes the old trope of the anonymous phone caller and gives it a Nielsen triple twist. The story is notable for her narrative trick of weaving back and forth between the past and present in order to build suspense.

"Lavender Lady" by Barbara Callahan
An example of the creepy domestic suspense story and very well done. The story tells the origins of a popular folk tune as narrated by a singer/songwriter. Slowly we learn how her muse has affected her creative life. The repetition of the song lyrics are like the chants and doggerel of doom so often found in fairy tales.

"Lost Generation" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis
The most experimental and mature of the lot. As in The Judas Cat and The Clay Hand, both early novels about how violence uncovers the corruption of small town’s population, Davis does in miniature and with an economy of words another story of rural life and crime. The narrative structure is layered with ambiguity and requires assiduous reading to glean all the subtleties. The relationships are revealed through bare bones dialogue and minimal description. It’s almost like a radio drama. Quite an impressive feat, loaded with sharp details and yet it’s the one of the shortest pieces.

"The Heroine" by Patricia Highsmith
As I was reading this one I couldn’t help but think of “The Turn of the Screw” and movies like The Nanny. Another one of those stories about a possibly mentally ill woman left in charge of children. Lucille has an obsessive need to prove herself and suffers from a few delusions. You know something is odd about her but you keep hoping that she isn’t a crazed lunatic. The ending is a shocker.

Joyce Harrington (a former actress) confesses
she writes by the Stanislavski method
"Mortmain" by Miriam Allen DeFord
Probably the nastiest story in the collection. Reminiscent of the kind of macabre irony Roald Dahl perfected in his short fiction. DeFord tells the story of a greedy nurse taking care of an ailing deputy sheriff and how her scheme to steal money from his safe goes horribly wrong. Has a gasp inducing ending proving this story to be the only true noir tale in the collection.

For me the gem of the book is "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington, a writer whose work I knew nothing about until I read this tale. It’s a little masterpiece. Each carefully chosen word rings true. The brilliant use of weaving imagery from the work on the loom to the spider spinning its web, the language used to evoke the serenity of Mrs. Moon’s state of mind as she plots revenge on her womanizing husband –- it’s all perfect. Here is the epitome of what Weinman talks about in her informative introduction defining the aspects of domestic suspense. If I were you I’d save it for the very last and savor it like a fine wine. It’s really that good.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Juliet Dies Twice - Lange Lewis

I had such hopes for Juliet Dies Twice (1943), Lange Lewis' second detective novel after having so enjoyed her debut Murder Among Friends. But when I encountered three bugaboos of mystery fiction I thought "Uh oh" and the red flags went off for a trip into the land of cliche and run-of-the-mill plotting. It looked like Juliet Dies Twice was going to be a sophomore slump of a novel. And those three bugaboos? An escaped lunatic, an amateur theatrical company, and a trunkful of Freudian psychological "insight".

The amateur theater business is tolerable for its lack of verisimilitude because Lewis has circumvented the actual structure and process of a theater by making this company a combination student/faculty group on the campus of small university. The building itself is unusual even for an academic theater and it allows the writer to create some unheard of and cumbersome rules like the fact that a prop room is located in a basement far away from the stage and is accessible only by two doors (one inside and the other leading outside the building). The key to the inside door is in the hands of a secretary in a different building and must be asked for in order to access. That's right the theater department doesn't even have control over a key to their prop room. You get the idea how convoluted and contrived the plot is with that business alone. Add to that an escaped lunatic, the abundance of Freud love and completely outdated views of mental illness and it's enough to drive anyone to the analyst's couch screaming for a healthy dose of common sense.

Lewis also seems to have reinvented Lt. Richard Tuck, her very smart and capable police detective for this second outing. Gone are his capacity for compassion and his use of imagination to get inside the head of a murderer. Instead Tuck has been reshaped into one of many cookie cutter detectives in the genre, a wisecracking jaded cop. He shares the crime solving stage with a smart alecky know-it-all amateur sleuth -- the often irritating Eudora York, a psychology and theater major at the college. Together they investigate the murder of a student actress who was to play Juliet in Shakespeare's tragedy and offer up odd theories about the personality of the "fiend" who did the deed.

But the story is redeemed by Lewis' crisp writing and her cast of supporting players. Each of the student actors and actresses has some quirk or idiosyncrasy that makes them stand out from the rest of the cast. They range from five foot five Paul Ober, the best actor of the lot frustrated by his being typecast because of his height to Ames Hanna, Eudora's wealthy playboy of a boyfriend whose sick sense of humor has Eudora worried that he may be a lunatic himself.

Every now and then Lewis also surprises with a scene of poignancy or jolts the readers out of the dream world of play acting and Shakespeare's star crossed lovers into the reality of a country on the verge of war. Midway through the story one of the most superficial actresses – Meg Fife, a graduate student in the theater program – does an about face and allows us a glimpse into who she really is. She laments that the world is changing around her, that the stage once provided for her an escape but now she is afraid. "I've tried to tell myself that I'm seeing the slow crumbling of a philosophy of life which I and all my generation believed to be the only one. There’s khaki everywhere now, you hear soldiers marching past your window early in the morning[...] Everywhere the individual and his aims and plans are growing less and less important. I try to tell myself that's what frightens me." It was the most moving and real scene in the entire book, especially since it has an eerie resonance for our modern times when war and violence seem inescapable.

There are a few twists that call to mind some of the best from Agatha Christie’s cabinet of magic tricks. I was reminded of an overused detective novel trope that crops up most obviously in Peril at End House, but Lewis manages to find a new way to pull off that trick. She fooled me at least. The lunatic will end up playing a large role in the denouement and his appearance helps to explain some of the creakier elements of the contrived business surrounding the baffling murder of Ann Laird. The revelation of the murderer, however, is anticlimactic. With a motive firmly rooted in a reality of ennui and nonchalance the final chapter may have resonance for a 21st century reader. For me I was craving a more satisfying, fantastical solution that merited all the clever puzzles that had held my interest for the majority of the book.

IN BRIEF: The Santa Klaus Murder - Mavis Doriel Hay

Chances are you have no idea who Mavis Doriel Hay is. She wrote only three detective novels in her brief career and none of them were published outside her native England. But obscure or not and regardless of her brief output the British Library has decided to revive an interest in this forgotten woman by reprinting all three of her books. Fittingly, as we approach the holiday season, her third mystery The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) is the first to be released with others to follow in June 2014.

The plot is classic for the era. Set in the home of Sir Osmond Melbury wealthy patriarch who is rumored to be writing a new will in favor of his very officious and very young secretary The Santa Klaus Murder is practically a textbook version of the English country house mystery novel. During the Christmas morning celebrations Sir Osmond is shot dead in what appears to be his locked and shuttered study. The suspects include his son and three daughters, their spouses and a handful of servants and houseguests. Yet only one person – a guest dressed as Santa who also discovered the body – appears to have had the opportunity to have committed the crime. And he is without a motive for doing so. The story has all the makings of an impossible crime for those who had real motives have perfect alibis at the time of the murder.

The detection is top notch and there are multiple mysteries the police inspector must solve in addition to the baffling murder. As with many mystery novels of the day seemingly airtight alibis may be completely fabricated as many of the suspects lie and collude in order to protect one another. The book also includes such familiar components as a map of the crime scene and a list of characters and their relationships to one another. The well drawn map of the first floor detailing the unusual architecture of the Melbury estate serves as the frontispiece. The reader will find himself referring to it frequently in order to understand the complex arrangement of where each suspect was at the time of the murder.

Well placed clues are easy to spot and lend themselves to a nicely done competition between the reader and Colonel Halstock, chief constable who serves as one of the several narrators. A surprise element that comes as a late discovery to the characters will seem rather obvious to well-read detective novel readers. For the highly astute it is indeed possible to solve the complicated plot as this is a rather well done example of a fair play detective novel with all clues and evidence provided to the reader and nothing withheld or produced at the eleventh hour. In fact there is a "Postscript" explaining all the clues that reminded me of the notebook pages of Mrs. Bradley in Gladys Mitchell’s mystery novels. Let this be a warning to those who like to peek: the last chapter mentions the name of the murderer many times over in an enumerated list detailing motive, means and opportunity.

For those not as entranced with the puzzle elements of the plot The Santa Klaus Murder also has much to offer in intriguing characters. Hay has a few words to say on the misery of a shell shocked World War 1 veteran (ironically named Evershot) and the effects he has on his wife and relatives. Edith, Sir David Evershot’s haunted and conflicted wife, is probably the most interesting and complex of the women characters and her role adds a much needed gravitas to the sometimes lighthearted proceedings. As in most detective novels there is the recurring motif of role playing compounded by a literal masquerade in the use of the Santa Klaus costume that the murderer uses ingeniously in order to confuse everyone’s notion of time and location.

Hay’s other mystery novels Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell will be released in new editions by The British Library in the early summer of 2014. Curt Evans has already given us a taste of Hay’s earlier work in his review of Murder Underground, though it does not sound as engaging or clever as this last book.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

FFB: Desert Town - Ramona Stewart

Based solely on the plot blurb on the rear cover of the Pocket Books edition any reader would think that Desert Town (1946) by Ramona Stewart is an early sleaze novel about a trampy, rebellious daughter and her domineering mother. "You little slut," her mother said. is the bold headline intended to grab the attention of a prospective reader. As usual the publisher is teasing and misleading by appealing to a taste for melodrama and raunchy language. A thorough reading of the book itself reveals so much more than vulgarity and a mother and daughter at odds with one another. Desert Town is a very strange exploration of love in all its forms and the pursuit of one’s desires. But not specifically sexual desire.

At the heart of the novel is one of the oddest love triangles in pulp fiction. Paula Haller – Eddie Benedict—Johnny Ryan. And it’s not the men vying for the woman as one would think in one of these triangles. Instead we find Johnny and Paula competing for the affection of Eddie. Yet there isn’t a hint of homoerotic lust between the two men. Theirs is a very intense devotion that defies brotherly male bonding with obedience and need taking the place of sexual attraction. While Paula is drawn to Eddie’s strong personality, his toughness, his brooding good looks Johnny wants Eddie because he needs him to achieve his status in the world of racketeers. But for the bulk of the book Johnny is depicted as a jealous lover constantly trying to get rid of Paula. He threatens her as would a woman who feels she is losing her man to a younger, sexier rival. He belittles her in front of Eddie similar to a women who is slighted.

Incredibly strange to read these exchanges coming from the mouth of a man who intimidates Paula with his eyes "the shade of redwood bark," his "animal warmth" she feels when she shakes his hand upon first meeting him and how he seems to demand of her "recognition of his slow moving, powerful aliveness." Stewart has a quirky way with her prose. She can be spot on in a descriptive passage about the desert landscape then like a beginner driver shifting gears too quickly she slips up and allows her tendency towards purple prose to sputter across the page with awkward word choices and indulgent metaphors. It's slightly forgivable for a first time novelist and the weirdness of these odd slips in writing adds another level of the surreal to an already strange story of attraction and repulsion among the three main characters.

The rivalry between Paula and Johnny is further complicated by the fact that Paula is a dead ringer for Eddie’s recently deceased wife Angela. There’s an element of Rebecca in the way Paula uses this similarity to her advantage and it’s all the more creepy when you recall she is a seventeen year-old not yet graduated from high school and Eddie is at least ten years older, perhaps even older, though his age is never stated outright. Fritzi is always reminding her daughter of the inappropriateness of the relationship as well as warning Paula that Eddie is just plain no good.

The mixed signals are intentional on Stewart’s part. She develops the kind of misdirection found in a detective novel by allowing the reader to view Johnny Ryan only through Paula's eyes. This allows Stewart a narrative coup de grace delivered by Johnny Ryan like a boxer's knockout blow in the penultimate chapter.  His revelation crushes both Paula and Eddie as it was intended and he comes out like a champion.

Stewart’s other strength is in her creation of the supporting players who surround the trio and the frustrated scheming Fritzi. There is Lena Raines, the wife of the town undertaker, who trades in a promising career in biochemistry at a local university for a life of domesticity only to discover she has trapped herself in a marriage as barren as the desert town she thought would be a blissful escape. She turns to alcohol and racing her husband's car recklessly in a sort of dance with death. But she's always rescued and prevented from hurting herself or anyone by policeman Luke Sheldon to whom she is attracted and secretly desires. Sheldon turns out to be the savior figure of the book and the only decent and ethical cop in Chuckawalla.

The other policemen are Pat Johnson and Tom Hansen, another male duo in a near co-dependent relationship that borders on the perverse. Hansen is a former rodeo champion who had to give up his chosen life due to permanent injuries sustained while bronco busting. We learn he is a sadistic thug and Johnson, his only real friend, tolerates and sometimes encourages Hansen’s hobby of doling out regular beatings to the jail’s prisoners. At a poker game where the two cops are joined by Doc Waley and Jim Raines (Lena’s husband) the men discuss the death of a drunk who died in the jail. All know (as does the reader) that Hansen beat the drunk to death. But the conversation circumvents that reality and they spend the night dismissing the poor old drunk who died an accidental death. The casual nature of the talk perfectly captures how inured the town has become to violence and corruption. How they are willing to allow murder to go unpunished in order to preserve and maintain their twisted status quo. Even Fritzi Haller's assortment of brothels and her casino The Purple Sage are allowed to flourish in Chuckawalla thanks largely to her frequent bribing of the police while all other officials conveniently look the other way.

In addition to exploring the dark side of male friendships Desert Town is also a coming of age tale for Paula Haller. She wades through this crooked, deviant world trying to find a path to happiness and womanhood. Paula constantly complains of being treated as a child and wants to grow up quickly. She finds herself testing her limits, pursuing dream men and dream jobs, falling in and out of love as quickly as the desert winds change and the rainstorms come and go. And she encounters dangers and perils as she comes to see how her mother has changed and how the hedonistic businesses she runs are far from fun diversions and that the men she deals with are far from gentlemen.

Ramona Stewart, age 25, as she appears
on the rear DJ cover of the 1st ed.
Stewart's story originally appeared as a serial in Collier's magazine and was purchased by Hollywood prior to its being published in book form. The movie adaptation was retitled Desert Fury and came out in 1947, the same year the book was released. The movie stars Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor as Paula and Fritzi; John Hodiak and Wendell Corey as Eddie and Johnny; and Burt Lancaster as an amalgam of the good Luke Sheldon and the evil Tom Hansen with good winning out over evil in the blending of the characters (even if he did end up with the bad cop's name). Amazingly, Robert Rossen who adapted the story retained nearly 80% of Ramona Stewart's original dialogue and scenes -- a testament to her dramatic skill.

Finally, here is some good news: Desert Town is the sophomore offering from Raven's Head Press. The book is in the final stages of production and will be offered for sale, if luck is on our side, by the end of this month. The new edition will include a killer cover design and a foreword by me on the unusual writing career of Ramona Stewart. She began with stories for the "slicks" and ended up writing occult thrillers of which The Possession of Joel Delaney, made into a very disturbing movie with Shirley MacLaine and Perry King, is her most well known. An announcement will be posted here when our edition of Desert Town is officially released. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

NEW STUFF: Rustication - Charles Palliser

Rustication by Charles Palliser
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0-393-08872-4
336 pp. $25.95
Publication date: November 4, 2013

Back in 1990 Charles Palliser wowed the literary world with his debut novel The Quincunx, a historical pastiche of startling imagination and literary skill that paid homage to Mrs. Henry Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins and other British writers who primarily wrote sensation novels in the Victorian era. Palliser’s work has often been compared to Gothic literature but this is a an error on the part of many critics who know little of the difference between a sensation novel and a Gothic novel. The Gothic novel grew out of the romantic novel and builds on fictional tropes that have their roots in fanciful imaginative writing. The sensation novel was an attempt to turn away from romantic fiction and return to the realism of the 18th century novel while at the same time revealing the dark side of human nature. Unlike a Gothic novel which flirts with supernatural and surreal events, whether genuine or rationalized, the sensation novel is rooted in reality. The emphasis is on everyday characters in domestic settings and circumstances not foreign and exotic locales. Crumbling abbeys with corrupt monks and maniacal nuns or haunted castles owned by amoral barons are not to be found in a sensation novel. Nor do ghosts or vampires have any role in creating a feeling of dread and horror. It is base human nature that will make the reader shudder and gasp. Ultimately the sensation novel dares to reveal the seediness beneath a seemingly mundane reality with heroes and villains recognizable from anyone’s life.

In Rustication Palliser returns to the world of the sensation novel and this time far surpasses what he did in The Quincunx and does so in half the length of that book and with a much smaller cast of characters. Deceit and duplicity, betrayal and sacrifice, heartbreak and redemption all play out in the 280 pages of Richard Shenstone’s journal and the scatological poison pen letters that are interspersed within the pages.

Though set in 1863-1864 this heart wrenching story of misplaced devotion, skewed priorities and base self-interest will appeal to many modern devotees of crime fiction. The story has a contemporary ring of truth in its three leads –- mother , daughter and son of the Shenstone family. Mrs. Shenstone, self-deluding and over protective of her children, finds herself more and more caught up in an attempt to regain her rightful and respected place in society all the while blind to the consequences of her short sighted aspirations. Euphemia, her daughter, succumbs to avaricious temptation and is willing to sacrifice her own brother in her attempt to secure a place of wealth and position. Richard, disgraced after being thrown out of college and carrying more than a few secrets of his own, escapes into a world of drug induced sleep and furtive sexual encounters. As the story progresses we learn the true reason of Richard’s expulsion (or as the college euphemistically terms it his “rustication”), the secret of his recently deceased clergyman father’s fall from grace, and the secret designs of his mother and sister in a complicated scheme that finds Richard feeling a hangman’s noose round his neck at every passing hour.

While Richard is trying to figure out what happened to his father he finds himself suspected of being the author of several obscene anonymous letters targeting the women of Thurchester. He turns detective in order to clear his name and find the true author behind the poison pen.

But every woman he encounters seems to be a nasty gossip of the worst sort. Whether tart tongued and vicious in their insinuations or outright shocking in their frank accusations the women of the story come across as a gaggle of Gorgons ranging from an supercilious 14 year-old to a septuagenarian busybody. The men fare no better and in the case of a brutal dandy who engages in illegal dog fighting and a barkeep who reserves a dark corner of his pub for male-on-male assignations they seem far worse.

Richard is no purely good hero either with his opium pipe and his seduction of the simple minded maid, but amid this assortment of nasty characters we long for him to redeem himself and provide us with a protagonist of goodness and heroism. In this amoral world of physical and mental cruelty and salacious obsessions there must be some relief in the form of simple human decency. In the end Richard will prove himself to be such a hero but not without making his own terrible sacrifices.

Fans of modern noir will find many of the tropes of that genre in Rustication and may learn a thing or two about the origin of the stories of Gil Brewer, Day Keene and Vin Packer. Contrary to popular belief the basest and darkest impulses of noir fiction really have their roots in Victorian sensation fiction. Adultery, bigamy, sexual addiction, drug addiction, greed, desire for status and power, and brutal murder were not inventions of the pulp fictioneers or paperback original writers, they are all elements of the sensation novel. As Palliser reminds us the basest of human motives are universal and timeless and are always the best ingredients for gripping, page-turning book.

Friday, November 8, 2013

FFB: Master of the Macabre - Russell Thorndike

In the tradition of works like Arthur Machen's The Three Impostors and R. Austin Freeman's The Uttermost Farthing: A Savant's Vendetta (which this book markedly resembles) The Master of the Macabre (1947) is another collection of supernatural and macabre tales that take the form of a quasi-novel. Taylor Kent, writer of thrillers, is travelling by car to deliver a package to Charles Hogarth. En route he encounters a raging snowstorm, loses control of his car and crashes not far from Hogarth's home. Kent now injured with a broken ankle is rescued by Hogarth's servant Hoadley and taken to the house where he soon becomes both guest and invalid. While recuperating Hogarth shows Kent his collection of macabre objects and relics he has amassed over several decades. Each one has its own peculiar story and over the coming nights Hogarth proceeds to relate several stories.

The book has an amazingly similar structure and skeletal plot to The Savant's Vendetta in which a sinister collector of human skulls also tells a variety of stories to a house guest. Each novel has an underlying connecting story that recurs throughout the narrative resulting in a surprise climax. In the case of Thorndike's book the climax has to do with the ghost of the corrupt Abbott Porfirio who haunts Hogarth's home and who appears in a series of apparitions which Kent first attributes to nightmares.

An aspect of the novel I found most interesting is Thorndike's take on the haunted house as a living entity. This idea had previously been explored by Bulwer-Lytton in the late nineteenth century in "The House and the Brain" and to much greater effect in the mid 1920s in Cold Harbour by Francis Brett Young. The topic would continue to be explored by generations of supernatural fiction writers and would reach its apotheosis in 1959 with The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and continue to be reworked by Richard Matheson (Hell House) and Robert Marasco (Burnt Offerings) in the 1970s. In Thorndike's book prior to the serial narration of the stories of the objects both Hoadley and Hogarth discuss the weird influence the house has on its occupants. The house is described as being "susceptible," exhibiting "the strangest properties", displaying "powerful and insidious" effects. There is talk of the Spanish Chamber being the "most active" room in the house with weird examples of what goes on there. Thorndike carries this discussion to the objects themselves when Hogarth says to Kent:

"Come over to the tapestries and I promise you they will treat you entirely sympathetically. You may think me childish, but I have always hugged the belief that every so-called inanimate object in this world, whether beautiful or ugly according to our standards, has a being--an entity of its own. When you are fond of a thing -- your typewriter, for instance -- why shouldn't that thing be fond of you? I almost think that things can think."

Russell Thorndike in costume as Dr. Syn
The "insidious influence" becomes a running theme throughout the book as each relic in Hogarth's collection has its story told. Yet this theme is rarely mentioned in any reviews or criticism of Thorndike's book. That Thorndike was an early proponent of this popular motif in haunted house literature cannot be denied. It is unfortunate that his obvious fascination with the idea of objects that are alive and a house with influence has been overlooked by supernatural fiction critics.

Instead Thorndike is usually discussed for his other obsession -- graves, decaying corpses and the grisly aspects of death. Building upon an already rich library of supernatural and weird fiction tropes Thorndike is clearly paying homage to the grotesque penchants of Poe, Machen, James and Blackwood in these stories. Pickled maggots, graveyard ghouls, live burial and other assorted often repulsive set pieces all make their appearances.

Of the stories I enjoyed the most are his very Poe-like tale of a man fleeing execution by hanging  during a breakout of plague and his bizarre idea to disguise himself as one of the victims of the disease. When is thrown into a mass grave his harrowing, nightmarish escape recalls some of the more grisly sequences in the tales of the American master of the macabre. There is also a very well done and brief story of a 20th century Ahab named Captain Dawson and his obsessive pursuit of a man-eating shark known as "Great Crafty."  It's both a nod to Moby Dick and an eerie prediction of Peter Benchley's massive bestseller Jaws.  There are other tales as well which make up quite a mixed bag (many of them go on far too long)  including a very strange one about the origins of a shovel with a horseshoe welded to its handle and a protracted tale about the scarlet lining of an Indian soldier's coat that has several sequels throughout the book.

The Master of the Macabre was released earlier this year in a new trade paperback edition from Valancourt Books. It includes a biographical introduction about Russell Thorndike by supernatural fiction authority, avid book collector and writer Mark Valentine. The book is available through Valancourt Books and amazon.com in both tangible and digital editions. I'm very happy to see The Master of the Macabre back in print as it has so much to recommend it as both a turning point in haunted house literature and the development of the supernatural short story.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern - Nicholas Olde

Who was Nicholas Olde? No one seems to know. In addition to this collection of clever and often quite funny mystery short stories, Olde apparently was also the author of two slim volumes of poetry published in pamphlet form in the early 1930s. It is generally thought that Olde was a pseudonym and attempts to uncover any biographical data on him have yielded nothing. Whoever he was he certainly read a lot of G. K. Chesterton. The plots and dialogue are rife with the kind of paradox that Chesterton imbued his mystery stories—not only with Father Brown but also in the Gilbert Pond stories and the tales found in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Another Chestertonian aspect of some of the stories is an element of the supernatural and the impossible crime, or more often an impossible problem. Chesterton employed these often in the Father Brown stories. Readers will surely find analogies between many stories. “The Windmill” by Olde and “The Invisible Man” by Chesterton share similar solutions to their crimes, for instance. “The Monstrous Laugh” tells of a town haunted by phantom laughter and a local superstition that is similar to the seemingly supernatural aspects of “The Ghost of Gideon Wise,” “The Dagger with Wings” and several other Father Brown tales.

Robert Adey in his excellent bibliography of impossible crime stories and novels, Locked Room Murders, makes a side comment about Olde’s book having been undeservedly passed up for Queen’s Quorum status. Had it been listed in that Hall of Fame listing of seminal short story collections in the detective fiction genre, Olde would perhaps not have been condemned to obscurity and the book might not have descended into the limbo of forgotten and neglected works. In the countless anthologies devoted to crime and detective fiction published since the 1930s, only three publications have ever included a Rowland Hern story: “The Windmill” in Twelve Murder Tales, one of Jack Adrian’s anthologies for Oxford University Press (1988); “The Accidental Disembowelment of John Kensington" and “The Invisible Weapon” both in Japanese translation, the first in Hayakawa's Mystery Magazine (#468, 1995) and the other in a 1990s locked room story anthology, the title of which is Japanese (I cannot reproduce it here). It’s a shame this has happened because The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern contains some of the most ingenious and funny detective stories of the 1920s.

Like most detective fiction fans I had never heard of Nicholas Olde or Rowland Hern. No surprise given the fact that Olde and the quirky Rowland Hern have both been overlooked (or shunned) by nearly all of the crime fiction historians and critics. Through sheer serendipity -- that miracle that usually leads me to a treasure of a book -- I was lucky enough to obtain a copy through the internet in the spring of 2005. Lucky, because as I later discovered, it is among one of the rarer books in mysterydom and sought after by collectors of impossible crime stories. Later research revealed that the copy I stumbled upon was the only copy being offered via the internet and has been the only one for several years. An attempt to locate other copies, even in academic libraries or public libraries, showed less than ten copies held in the US and UK. There may be other copies in private collections, but I’ve been unable to verify the existence of even one. All of this made me think that someone ought to reissue this book. And the sooner the better.

As I delved into its pages I discovered the book to be filled with the bizarre, the surreal and the outrageous. Throughout the fifteen stories in the volume the reader is treated to several wicked clergymen, a devious physicist, a vengeful botanist, and many murderous lords, earls and other titled gentry. The plots involve a secret code in a lost language, a murder committed with an invisible weapon, a tell-tale beard, a near disembowelment, a village where no one laughs, and a killer whose motive is linked to a literal battle of wits.

The more I read the more I thought Olde cannot really intend these to be taken seriously. They must be detective fiction parodies. As such they are perhaps some of the earliest examples. I can think of only Philo Gubb, the correspondence school sleuth created by the American humorist Ellis Parker Butler, as the earliest of intentional detective fiction parodies in short story form. The first clue that Olde’s mood is far from somber in ...Rowland Hern are the characters’ decidedly British and often alliterative monikers. Here’s a brief line-up of these unusual suspects: Pounceby Brisket, K.C., Sir Chudleigh Chalfont, Mrs. Tregaskin Simpson, Hercules Herklot, Sir Pendragon Higginbotham and Porteous Pemberton- Drysdale. And the names give only a hint of the oddities that the reader will encounter.

In “Potter”, one of my favorites in the collection, Hern and his nameless sidekick head off to a boutique that specializes in the sale of exotic animals. Why? Because Hern is in need of an armadillo and the emporium has several sizes to choose from. Their advertisement is certainly enticing to anyone in search of exotic animals: “Potter & Hara, Wild Beast Merchants. Tigers from £85, certified Man-eaters 5s extra. Snakes and crocodiles a specialty. Free burglary insurance policy presented to each customer.” How can one go wrong with those promises? Exactly why Hern needs that desert beast is never explained. And must we really know? The mere fact that he needs an armadillo is surreal enough. How many fictional detectives have ever required an armadillo to solve a case? Or for anything!

Olde’s sense of humor reaches its pinnacle in “The Mysterious Wig-Box.” For a story written in 1920s it displays a truly contemporary black humor presenting us with legal professionals who make light of killing and death during a sensational murder trial. Their lively repartee receives hearty laughter and applause from the irreverent courtroom attendees. The trial ends in a surprising acquittal of the serial killer thought to be obviously guilty. Later the defense attorney (one of the punning wits of the courtroom) is found decapitated in his home and his head decorated with his barrister’s wig is found in a wig-box in a railway station. Hern sees in this bizarre crime a particularly nasty sense of humor. The victim lost his head, after all, along with his ears and nose. What appears to be a wanton and insane act is in fact a purposeful and vengeful crime. When Hern reveals the killer’s identity his cohort is astonished. He says, “Apparently [they] were on the best of terms. […] They were even joking with one another during the trial.” Hern replies, in his characteristic Chestertonian paradoxical manner, “Yes, and that was the trouble.” It was their sense of humor which led to the crime. The first time I know of in crime fiction that the telling of jokes served as a motive for murder.

For decades The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern was one of the legendary and unattainable books of the genre. Thankfully, that is a thing of the past.  Mystery fans now have an affordable edition to enjoy available from Ramble House. Nicholas Olde’s original sleuth need no longer be imprisoned in that limbo of forgotten and neglected fictional creations. I suggest you acquaint yourself with him soon.

(This is an abridged, slightly altered version of my introduction to the Ramble House edition of The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern first reissued in 2005.)

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Happy Halloween! For your viewing and hearing pleasure a couple of creepy movie openings. Love the music on both of these.

Drag Me To Hell (title sequence designed by Picture Mill, music by Christopher Young)

Ed Wood (title design by Paul Boyington & Robert Dawson, music by Howard Shore)

Monday, October 28, 2013

COOL FLICKS: I Put a Spell on You - Halloween Movie Fest

The one, the only -- Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe)
Even though I am already seeing Christmas ads on TV (!) and my local café is prominently displaying a selection of “holiday” cards beside the Kind bars, breath mints, and other impulse buys near the cash register it is still the "Season of the Witch" for me. Thankfully, Jack-o-lanterns far outnumber Christmas wreaths in my ‘hood.

With only three days left before the big costume parade on Halsted Avenue and trick or treating everywhere else I have time to sneak in my suggestions for a Halloween mini- movie festival for your DVD player. Most of these films are easily available on DVD and a few can be found online. Looking for unusual frights and shivers? Sample a few or all of these suitably chilling Halloween movies all having to do with spell casting whether literal or metaphorical. We begin with the most recent and travel back in time to the oldest.

Outcast (2010) – an original take on witchcraft and spell casting from a Scottish TV writer/director Colm McCarthy is his feature film debut. A young man is being stalked by a powerful warlock and his mother (Kate Dickie) resorts to witchcraft and runic spells to protect him. Meanwhile a mysterious beast terrorizes the countryside committing gruesome murders. The stories intersect in a chilling climax. A brutal horror film that is also at its heart the story of mother who will stop at nothing to protect her child.

Travel to the Louisiana bayou for a little lesson in hoodoo of the American south. Not at all the same as voodoo as you will learn in The Skeleton Key (2005). Kate Hudson -- normally not at all one of my favorites -- plays a hospice worker who is charged with taking care of the dying patriarch (John Hurt at left) of an old plantation family. Hurt at first seems to be dying of a terminal illness, but is he actually being scared to death? What is he so frightened of? Is his loss of speech a medical condition or the result of spellcasting?

Secrets in the attic, midnight strolls in a spooky Southern Gothic mansion, and a whole lot of witchery and superstition are the ingredients in this combination fright flick and mystery story. Gena Rowlands and Peter Sarsgaard round out the fine cast. Hudson is actually rather good in this one and the story is so well told (original script by Ehren Kruger who also wrote the very fine Arlington Road as well as Impostor and The Ring) and shot you soon find yourself completely engrossed in the mysterious and very spooky goings on.

Rufus Sewell succumbs to the siren song of a deadly mermaid
She Creature (2001) was part of a somewhat successful attempt to revisit old monster movies from the 1950s in a cable TV series called "Creature Features." The original was also called She Creature but that is all they have in common. This remake (the best of the series, IMO) uses the legends of mermaids and the Sirens of Greek mythology, sets the film in Victorian England and is a vast improvement. I enjoyed it a lot.

Sewell & Gugino notice a change in the catch of the day
Sebastian Gutierrez wrote and directed this homage to old Hammer horror flicks and casts Rufus Sewell and Carla Gugino as a couple of con artists trying to pass off Gugino as a mermaid in a lame sideshow act. When they find a real mermaid they capture her, cage her and exploit her for a money making exhibit that will outdo their previous pathetic attempts. They get a lot more than they bargained for with this very angry mermaid. The ending is completely over-the-top but just plain perfect for a monster movie. Sewell and Gugino are splendid, but the real stars of this retro monster movie are the make-up designer and the special effects team.

While not a legitimate horror movie per se Apartment Zero (1988) is still one of the creepiest and under-appreciated films out there. Definitely scary enough to add to any evening of Halloween films. It may be the only arty slasher film in existence. Colin Firth in one of his earliest screen performances shows just why he deserves that recent Oscar. He plays Adrian LeDuc, a loner art film theater owner, who out of financial need rents a room in his apartment to mysterious stranger Jack Carney played by 80s hunk Hart Bochner. The two develop a very strange friendship and soon LeDuc is shielding his roommate when Jack is suspected of being a serial killer. Written and directed by Argentinian filmmaker Martin Donovan whose real name is Carlos Enrique Valera y Peralta-Ramos.

Donohoe doing her snake act
Can there be a more hysterically funny, bizarrely surreal, and ridiculously erotic horror movie than The Lair of the White Worm (1988)? If there is, I haven’t found it yet. Ken Russell has taken Bram Stoker’s weakest novel of the supernatural and transformed it into a campy, slithery, fright fest that could also be a very perverted herpetophile’s wet dream. A mix of surreal nightmare sequences, over the top sex scenes, a generous helping of offensive blasphemy, and an absurd use of snake and phallic imagery The Lair of the White Worm is one head trip of a horror movie. Add to that hodgepodge one of the most delightfully weird performances in the person of the sexy and witty Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh and you can't go wrong. Hugh Grant is the hapless hero caught up in Lady Sylvia’s serpentine spell. The first time I saw this movie I couldn’t believe half of what I was seeing. To this day I have yet to see a horror film this daring when it comes to mixing sex and laughs and scares.

Looks like 1988 was a banner year for spooky movies. The Serpent and the Rainbow is also from that penultimate 80s year. Bill Pullman plays a doctor who travels to Haiti because he has heard of a drug used in creating a state of suspended animation that might be the origin of zombie mythology and inadvertently stumbles into the dangerous world of voodoo. Zakes Mokae is the powerful voodoo priest who utters the line “I want to hear you scream” in one of horror cinema’s truly bloodcurdling and nerve-wracking torture sequences. Based on a true story of a botanist who did research into the toxic and hallucinogenic plants used in Haitian voodoo rituals.

What's Halloween without a monster or two? I’ve always loved Roddy McDowall and when he plays slimy villains he’s at his best. He does a sort of Norman Bates redux role in It! (1967), a remake of the old silent German expressionist film The Golem (1920). The movie also has Jill Haworth and it is largely due to these two actors that the movie isn’t an utter disaster. Unintentionally funny and campy beyond belief It! does what all monster movies do well -- takes a preposterous story and make it thoroughly entertaining.

Watching ol’ Roddy become master of the murderous statue and using it to eliminate everyone who angers him is too much fun. His performance makes it easier to forgive the story's frequent lapses in common sense. But that’s what makes it one of my favorite monster flicks. What may not be so easy to forgive or overlook is the ridiculous apocalyptic ending involving nuclear warheads that should’ve obliterated half of England.

Conjure Wife is one of the more intriguing treatments of witchcraft in a modern setting. Charles Beaumont, best known for his work on TV’s Twilight Zone adapted Fritz Leiber’s novel for the screen and it remains faithful to the themes of the book. Retitled Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) (or The Night of the Eagle, depending on whether you live in the US or UK) the story works both as satire and horror story. Burn, Witch, Burn is nonetheless a chilling tale of superstition, spells and black magic. Perhaps the least gory of the films appearing on my Halloween film fest list this year it still holds a high place on the honor role of effective movies involving witchcraft. Also it earns special points for simultaneously being an intelligent movie that skewers the world of academia for its satiric touches on the bureaucracy of universities and the way in which wives control their husband’s destinies.

Janet Blair resorts to witchery to save her husband's life and career

Friday, October 25, 2013

FFB: The Cook - Harry Kressing

What makes a book a cult classic? Is it the writing alone? The subject matter? Must a cult novel by virtue of the word cult be something strange or weird or offbeat or...? (pick a similar adjective of your choosing) Maybe all of these criteria go into the making of a cult novel. One thing for sure cult novels usually are treasures of the bookshelf we like to label Forgotten Books. Learning of one through a cult novel's devoted reader for me is akin to the high a mountaineer must get once he's reached the apex after a grueling climb. I only heard of The Cook (1965) through one of the many comments when I asked followers of this blog to offer up titles of books they'd like to see put back in print as part of the giveaway for The Starkenden Quest last week. A very grateful thank you goes to Kelly R for mentioning this book as one of her favorites and one she would love to see reprinted. The Cook was one of the most rewarding reading experiences I've had this year. So utterly unique, deceptively simple, positively hallucinatory.

The Cook starts off like a fairy tale and as its very simple plot unravels it becomes a dark fable on all of the seven deadly sins. Vanity, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Pride, Wrath, Sloth -- all are here, some more prominent than others. Conrad Venn is entranced with the Gothic castle known as the Prominence situated on a remote plateau outside the town of Cobb. Though the grounds are beautifully kept and the imposing presence of the castle is hypnotically fascinating Conrad wonders whether it is inhabited. He travels into town and learns from a tavern keeper of the legend of the castle and the feud between the Hills and the Vales, descendants of A. Cobb, the original owner of the Prominence. Conrad also learns of Cobb's strange will that prevents the Prominence to be occupied again until the two families quit fighting and are joined through marriage. The tavern keeper says the feud is long over, but the Hills and Vales still live apart from one another with little contact. Each family is dying off with the last of the Vales being Daphne Vale, an enormously fat young woman who rarely goes out, and Harold the only son of the surviving Hills her only prospect for marriage. With this legend planted in Conrad's mind and the fact that the two families seem to be obsessed with outdoing each other when it comes to their cooks Conrad takes it upon himself to unite the families and re-open the doors of the Prominence.

Cooking and food and the etiquette of lavishly prepared meals are the strange tools of Conrad's trade. He is a Machiavellian wizard in the kitchen and his nearly magical meals cast a spell over Mr. and Mrs. Hill and their son Harold. He acts as cooking tutor, nutrition consultant and financial advisor. Transformations of both body and mind begin to take place as everyone eats his amazing food. Fat people become thin, thin people become fat. Master becomes servant and servants rebel against employers. All the while Conrad remains untouched, unaffected and his eye is ever on the Prominence. He wants it so badly he can taste it. He'll stop at nothing to possess his castle and become its king.

Kressing tells his story with a mix of black humor and brief explosions of unexpected violence. Conrad is feared and admired by everyone he encounters. With only a hint or a subtle suggestion he gets everyone to do his bidding. He is an untouchable magician, the wise man on the mountain, and always a formidable presence. Even when he nearly severs the hand of a man he intentionally injured he somehow manages to come out the hero of the day. The Hills, the Vales and the entire town of Cobb are at his mercy. He gets what he wants from each person he meets, using them and playing up to their vanities and vices. Conrad always wins; his associates and students often pay a heavy price.

The Cook is a fable, an allegory, a thriller, a satire. It's a phantasmagorical and intoxicating read. Like eating a fine meal in the best restaurant reading The Cook is one of those rare pleasures you don't want to end. It's not surprising to me at all that those who have discovered this book return to it over and over for more tastes of something one just can't get enough of.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

STAGE BLOOD: Veronica's Room

Just a few days ago I learned of a local production of Veronica's Room by Ira Levin and it received rave reviews from all the Chicago newspapers plus a few theater blogs.  So I had to see it.  I had read it many years ago and never seen a production and have always wanted to.  A perfect creepy night out just a week before Halloween. Did it live up to all the raves? Well, yes and no.

A college age student named Susan Kerner is cajoled into impersonating a long dead girl named Veronica in order to appease an older couple who are taking care of a dying woman named Cissy.  As her dying wish Cissy longs to see Veronica, who she believes to still be alive, so she can finally put to rest her fear that Veronica died angry over some sins of the past.  Susan thinks it'll be fun and sees it also as the act of a Good Samaritan.  No harm could possibly come from such a charade that has at its heart good intentions.  Well, that's what she thinks.  The charade starts to veer into the fearful when moments after agreeing to the impersonation she is locked in Veronica's room and left alone for a very long time.

From then on the play strays into a strange and surreal world of make believe and time travel. Has Susan lost her mind?  Is she the genuinely crazy one?  Or is she the victim of an elaborate mind game engineered by two insane servants?  What did Veronica really do?  Is she still alive?  All questions are answered as the plot is slowly unveiled and the architects of the nightmare step out of their roles to reveal their true selves and, more importantly, their deeply twisted secrets. 

From the reviews I read I was expecting something truly frightening.  But the production falls short of all the hyperbolic praise.  In the lead role of the terrorized and terrified Young Girl Amanda Jay Long does a convincing job of the woman in peril. You feel for her plight. The scene when she realizes what she must do in order to escape her nightmare packs an emotional wallop. She does an enviable job of getting the audience to feel her imprisonment. The intimacy of the theater itself adds to a atmosphere of claustrophobia and entrapment.  Long is making her Chicago debut in this production and she is certainly one young actress I'll be looking out for in the future. She has a range of emotion and talent on display here though she's still a little raw.

The bravura performance I would single out is that of Sarah Wellington (above, extreme right) in the role of the Old Woman.  Over the course of the eighty minutes Wellington plays four different parts, is the only actor who masters all the accent and regionalisms the script calls upon her to replicate, and is a powerhouse of strength, determination and eventually madness.

Reading Veronica's Room just doesn't compare to seeing it performed. Theater and role playing are such an integral part of the drama that a performance is truly the only way one can appreciate this deliciously devilish and perverted little thriller.  If you live in Chicago I recommend it for a creepy evening out during this Halloween season. Just don't believe all the hype. It'll give you a chill or two,  but you won't be scared out of your wits.

Veronica's Room plays through October 27 at the Heartland Studio (a tiny little storefront theater with a very intimate performance space) just north of Lunt on Glenwood Avenue.  It's a short two minute walk from the Morse Red Line stop.  The play was produced by Boho Theater Ensemble.