Saturday, October 29, 2016

That Really Drives You In-sa-a-a-a-a-ane!

Nothing beats an original.

Happy Halloween
to all you wonderful people out there in the dark! Be safe.

Friday, October 28, 2016

FFB: The Listener - Algernon Blackwood

Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay beneath the moon, almost unknown to human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.

The Listener (1907) is the second collection of short stories from one of the most innovative of British supernatural fiction writers, Algernon Blackwood. The nine stories, two of them of novella length, present a variety of unusual approaches to the traditional ghost tale, as well as one story of crime, all incorporating Blackwood's interest in the power of the imagination and the psychological triggers that make his characters susceptible to other worldly encounters. In many of his tales the narrators and protagonists inadvertently summon the creatures and ghosts by simply thinking about the possibilities of the strange and eerie circumstances they find themselves in. From a petulant writer who demands quiet and no disturbances while he taps out his meager newspaper features to an adventurous camper canoeing the wild waters of the Danube each character finds himself not only at the mercy of his raving imagination but under the influence of powers he cannot nor could not ever fathom. The first three stories in the collection were of most interest to me.

"The Listener" is exemplary of Blackwood's recurring themes and motifs. The unnamed narrator is struggling writer who ekes out his living contributing features to magazines and newspapers. In the first paragraph we learn he has discovered a room in a boarding house at the astonishingly cheap rate of £25 a year. He's an irritable fellow, demanding and a bit patronizing to everyone over the course of the story. His major pet peeve is disturbing outside noises that interfere with his concentration preventing him from completing his work. It all begins with a little boy dragging a toy cart with a missing wheel across the cobblestoned courtyard. The clattering grates on his nerves so much he shouts at the boy to stop, complains to the landlady and anyone else who will listen to get the boy to take the broken toy somewhere else. He's also irritated by frequent visitors to the house and interruptions from the servants. But when the noises turn to a voice in his room whispering at first, then crying out in anguish "Give me your skin!" he begins to understand why he got the room so cheaply. He starts having luridly vivid nightmares, thinks he is going mad, and finally comes to a terrifying realization. The final sentence in the book delivers a sucker punch making all that previously happened even more chilling.

BLACKWOOD MOMENT: ...I find myself suddenly dealing in thoughts and ideas that are not my own! New, strange conceptions, wholly foreign to my temperament, are for ever cropping up in my head. [...] Sometimes they are so strong that I almost feel as if some one were in the room beside me, thinking aloud.

Algernon Blackwood, circa 1907
at the age of 38
In the second story we meet another reporter who has been assigned to cover the upcoming trial of "Max Hensig - Bacteriologist and Murderer". This is a remarkable story for its stunning foreshadowing of a popular subgenre in crime fiction. In addition to Blackwood's fascination of master criminal behavior and abnormal psychology all the rage in popular fiction at this time, this story shares many features with the modern day serial killer novel. Max Hensig may very well be the template character that led to the creation of Hannibal Lecter seventy years later. He is a German doctor on trial for the arsenic poisoning of his wife. He claims innocence of course, dismissing the method employed as one beneath him. in his interviews with Williams, the protagonist reporter, Hensig brags that he has an entirely undetectable means of murder. He would use bacteria and germs to kill his victims and would never be on trial had he truly committed murder. Death of his victims would be ascertained as natural causes, succumbing to a fatal virus or a malingering infection. Hensig even predicts that he will be acquitted of the crime, that Williams will help that verdict come true in his news stories. Much to everyone's shock the prediction comes true. But that is not the end of Williams' relationship with Hensig.

Williams is appalled yet morbidly attracted to Hensig. His journalist colleague known only as "the Senator" warns him to keep the interviews to a minimum. He would avoid Hensig altogether if he were Williams. Throughout the story Hensig is referred to as evil, without morals, a man "to be shunned", and "a monster". The mix of repulsion/attraction Williams has for Hensig is amazingly similar to feelings Clarice Starling has for Lecter as well as many other similar adversarial duos in crime fiction. That Hensig cannot leave Williams alone, that the two have become inextricably linked in a mad battle of wills and for survival, is also strikingly resonant with all serial killer fiction. I strongly recommend this story to anyone interested in the origins of that popular subgenre. The story is rife with fictional and structural motifs that are clearly precursors to the modern serial killer novel.

BLACKWOOD MOMENTS: The Senator and Williams are in a bar in Chinatown. They see a pathetic drunken barfly in a shadowy corner of the room, a woman who has degraded herself so much she no longer resembles a woman. The Senator says, "There's not much to choose between Hensig and that" pointing to the woman. But Williams counters with: "All the difference in the world. She's been decent once, and may be again some day, but the damned doctor has never been anything but what he is -- a soulless, intellectual devil. He doesn't belong to humanity at all."

So gradual sometimes are the approaches of fear that the processes by which it takes possession of a man's soul are often too insidious to be recognized, much less to be dealt with, until their object has been finally accomplished and the victim has lost the power to act.

illustration by Sidney Stanley from
The Willows & Other Queer Tales (Collins, 1923)
The stand out of the collection and one of Blackwood's most often anthologized stories is "The Willows." Here we have all of his trademarks -- a narrator with a wild imagination who witnesses other worldly phenomena, a strong interest in the natural world and its power to terrify and intimidate humans in its awesomeness, and ancient elemental forces that want nothing to do with human interference in their domain no matter how innocuous or unintended. It may very well be the first story that uses the idea of communing with nature and the danger inherent in outdoor adventure to convey horror and fear rather than celebrate tranquility and the beauty of the natural world. Imagine if The Blair Witch Project or Deliverance took place at the Austria-Hungary border and add in some of the most originally conceived weird beings and you might begin to get an idea of what awaits you in "The Willows".

The writing shows Blackwood at his most evocative. In "The Willows" he begins to develop fully his ideas of unearthly creatures that live in an alternate dimension unbeknownst to humans. Forces of nature become terrifying. The beings that relentlessly hunt down the two campers in "The Willows" are invisible most of the time, when they take shape it is difficult for either man to describe them or put into words what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. They are elemental forces, shapeless things that leave odd funnel shaped holes in the sand as the travel or emerge from where they lay in wait.

If all this sounds familiar it should. The ideas expressed in "The Willows" serve as the foundation for the work of H.P. Lovecraft and all his acolytes from the 1920s to the present. At one point the Swedish man who at first is the most intellectual of the two, later the most terrified, refers to the things on the island as "the old ones". As the two men confront their fears and witness literally awesome powers at work it is hard not to think of the horde of creatures that make up Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.

BLACKWOOD MOMENTS: Mountains overawe and oceans terrify, while the mystery of great forests exercises a spell peculiarly its own. But all these, at one point or another, somewhere link on intimately with human life and human experience. They stir comprehensible, even if alarming, emotions. They tend on the whole to exalt. With this multitude of willows, however, it was something far different, I felt.

I seemed to be gazing at the personified elemental forces of this haunted and primeval region. Our intrusion had stirred the powers of the place into activity. It was we who were the cause of the disturbance, and my brain filled to bursting with stories and legends of the spirits and deities of places that have been acknowledged and worshipped by men in all ages of the world's history.

Never, before or since, have I been so attacked by indescribable suggestions of a "beyond region," of another scheme of life, another evolution not parallel to the human. And in the end our minds would succumb under the weight of the awful spell, and we should be drawn across the frontier into their world.

THINGS I LEARNED: A horse's collar is a cocktail made with bourbon, ginger ale, and a long curling orange rind extending outside the glass. It's apparently still somewhat popular and can be found in modern bartending books though the name has been changed to horse's neck.

In the early twentieth century US news reporters covering the firehouse and arson beat would be issued "a conspicuous brass badge" called a fire badge. As Blackwood tells us in "Max Hensig..." this badge "gave them the right to pass within the police cordon in pursuit of information, and at their own risk."

EASY TO FIND? While the original Eveleigh Nash 1907 collection is a rarity in the book collecting world and will cost you a chunk of change should you want to own a genuine first edition the stories are easily found in modern collections of Blackwood's tales as well as countless supernatural fiction anthologies. I guarantee it will be easy to find most of these stories, especially "The Willows", both in book format and for free at various online fiction websites.

Entire Contents of The Listener
"The Listener"
"Max Hensig -- Bacteriologist and Murderer"
"The Willows"
"The Insanity of Jones"
"The Dance of Death"
"The Old Man of Vision"
"May Day Eve"
"Miss Slumbubble--and Claustrophobia"
"The Woman's Ghost Story"

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL, part 1: Dark Ways to Death - Peter Saxon

It may say #2 on the cover,
but this is definitely the first book.
There was a time when trash fiction was all I would read to entertain myself. I’m sure it was the logical progression for someone always interested in macabre and lurid stories. I drank up the goriest of the Grimm fairy tales as kid in grade school, moved on to horror movies then horror comics, and finally was lured by trash paperbacks sold in the spin racks still seen in the Woolworth’s of my 1970s teenage years. It’s rare I find myself dipping into the kind of thing that most people try to hide behind a newspaper when riding the bus or train, but here I go again. Dark Ways to Death (1968) was chosen for one of my many Halloween reads this year not because it’s trashy. That was just a coincidence. I knew it to be the first of the series featuring occult detectives The Guardians. Having introduced myself to the series a while ago (The Curse of Rathlaw) and enjoying its unusual use of arcane Celtic folklore, occult legends and genuine supernatural content I tracked down all the other books and planned on reading them in order. This first book is nothing like the other which I think is the penultimate book in the series.

I thought I was going to get a 1960s version of the Jules de Grandin novel The Devil’s Bride. Instead I get grotesque horror that outdoes anything Poe dreamt up, cruel sadism, graphic accounts of torture and rape, along with a heavy dose of Hammer horror movie influenced black magic and voodoo shenanigans. Oh! and let’s not forget the overly generous supply of blaxploitation and xenophobia put on display like that garish show of Christmas lights your neighbor down the street thinks is an expression of the holiday spirit. This is the nadir of Halloween reading, gang. Ready to wallow in it for a couple of paragraphs? Let’s go!

Dark Ways of Death begins with a bang and continues like a pistol packin' mama (or papa) trying to kick a meth habit. It’s a relentless story heavy on action and ghoulish incidents told episodically like a verbal comic strip. We meet the whole Guardians gang led by the mysterious Gideon Cross and his would be paramour Anne Ashby, both of whom seem to be the reincarnations of an ancient warlock and his witch lover. There is anthropology professor Stephen Kane serving as the ostensible leader though it is Gideon Cross who controls all the cases and oversees the investigations into the forces of darkness bent on wreaking havoc with the modern world...or at least the greater portion of London. Rounding out the five person team of ghostbusters and exorcists are Father John Dyball and Lionel Marks. What’s a battle against the powers of darkness without at least one person of the cloth armed with the Bible, loads of holy water, a consecrated host or two, and the law of God behind him? Lionel, on the other hand, is a private investigator and the only down to earth guy of the bunch. He's in it to make a honest buck…or rather British pound. For that extra added all-inclusive 60s vibe Lionel also serves as the token ethnic member of the Guardians. He's Jewish and we're constantly reminded of that for one reason or another as if "Peter Saxon" was reminding us that he's hip and not at all racist. The bad guys may be a West Indian voodoo cult of maniac killers but one of the good guys is a Jew. Take that, you decriers !

The crux of the plot is the rescue of a cat not a person and the whole thing just seems a self-parody of pulpy, occult-laden adventures for much of the book until two humans are put in peril. That's not to say the rescue of the hordes of caged cats isn't an admirably heroic effort (couldn't help but find an analogy to a similar scene in a Jonathan Stagge detective novel), but it's not the kind of thing that makes for gripping adult reading no matter how many stomach wrenching scenes of gore and horror are described. Inexplicably added for comic effect are scenes featuring of a cadre of thrill-seeking titled aristocrats who gatecrash, so to speak, the black magic rituals of the West Indian voodoo cult who perform their secret rites and sacrifices in the abandoned tunnels of the London underground. Inadvertently, one of the snobs manages to help rescue two of the Guardians with their inane antics by accidentally causing a blackout with perfect eleventh hour timing. My favorite lines came from the superficial Duchess of Derwentwater who says things like, "An orgy is an orgy is an orgy. Don't go all cynical and rational. How could anyone enjoy it if they thought it was just a game?" and who wants to report the voodoo revelers to the RSCPA for animal cruelty noticing only what's being done to the cat and somehow managing to overlook completely the obvious torture of the two victims before her eyes intended for human sacrifice. Ludicrous!

I know I’m making it sound like I loathed reading this book, but I didn’t. You can’t take this kind of book seriously. Ever. It’s a potboiler and it's meant to entertain and -- hopefully -- shock. Dark Ways to Death does what it's supposed to do even if it takes more than the halfway mark in its brief 143 pages to get to the genuinely thrilling moments with real human lives at stake, all of it imaginatively rendered and not without ample doses of occult lore and voodoo history dropped in to edify the ignorant masses.

Obviously, this is not literature at all. If you're a fan of this kind of stuff you get what you pay for and then some. But I say it's not worth your time or money in reading this debut unless you are really curious about the origins of the occult detective group or prefer your horror to be of the torture porn variety with an emphasis on perversity and cruelty rather than supernatural creatures and occult phenomenon.

The Guardian series definitely improves in the later volumes with the best told story coming in the last book, The Vampires of Finistere. That one will be reviewed very soon. Another "Halloween Special" review on a much more rewarding and spooky book will be posted on Halloween Day. A definite rave versus this middling book. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 21, 2016

FFB: The Feast of Bacchus - Ernest G. Henham

Henry Reed had pitted his strength against the Strath and the influence of the house had triumphed.

THE STORY: Henry Reed inherits the Strath, a dilapidated mansion in the rural hamlet of Thorlund, and plans on a thorough renovation. Included in his rehab plans is a clean-up of the untended garden beloved for its wild beauty by Dr. Berry, the local reverend who was allowed private access to the garden for decades. Dr. Berry tries to dissuade Reed from changing anything about the house or its gardens. The American disregards the reverend scoffing at his implied dire warning. Within a few days the sinister influence of the house that locals have gossiped about for years manifest itself when Reed is found strangled on the threshold of the Strath (providing us with a minor murder mystery element) ushering in a cycle of bizarre events, personality transformations and explosions of violence.

THE CHARACTERS: The Feast of Bacchus (1907) is a remarkable work of fiction not only for its lush writing and unusual plot, but for the meticulously detailed characters, some of whom act as archetypes. Dr. Berry is the antiquarian of the novel obsessed with the past, especially ancient Greek history and culture, and is the voice that reminds everyone of the inescapable past. Maude Juxon represents the quickly fading conventions of the superficial woman who marries for money and regards rearing children as a tedious task better suited for nannies than real mothers. Flora Neill is the embodiment of "the New Woman" who dares to flout traditional views like marriage being the only recourse for women's happiness. Mr. Price serves as the voice of all who fear the advances of technology, machinery and science that seem to be contributing to the break down of modern civilization and all they hold dear. Take all of these people and add in the Gothic notion of the house as living entity with a sinister influence (a word repeatedly used throughout the text) and you have the makings for an unusual haunted house story that melds metaphysics with philosophy and satirical commentary on the March of Progress. Everyone who enters the Strath succumbs to one of two moods symbolized by the evil masks of Tragedy and Comedy which hang in the hallway of the house.

ATMOSPHERE: This is perhaps one of the richest novels I've read this year. The story is not only dense with incident and meaning, the writing is arresting in its expression and intent. While the characters tend towards intellectuals and quasi-aristocrats speaking in an arch wit reminiscent of a Restoration comedy there are just as many common folk who reflect a wisdom often more profound. A passage featuring a farmer who speaks in a cleverly rendered dialect is full of portent and foreshadowing of dire events to come as well as well done sequences with anecdotes of the past that read like miniature short stories. The dialogue has a tendency to be didactic but never once does the reader get the feeling that he is being lectured by an erudite professor. The supernatural incidents are few but so polished and uniquely rendered that Henham transcends all motifs and formula of the old-fashioned haunted house story. He may have even invented scenes that have since become familiar tropes of the subgenre.

The mythology and culture of Ancient Greece play a heavy part in the novel as is suggested by the title. One of the most fascinating chapters ("Act III, Scene IV. Sentimental Comedy") is Dr. Berry's sermon delivered as a disguised method of wooing Maude Juxon in which he talks of how all Western art -- literature, poetry, music, singing, and theater -- have their origins in "the worship of false gods." After reading his insightful observations it will be difficult for anyone not to see the similarities between a church of any type, the services and rituals performed there, and a theater and all of its styles of performance and stage techniques. His lecture is not fiction either. All Dr. Berry's points are derived from the works of 19th century antiquarians and Greek scholars who first compared Greek religious rites and modern theater. This dependence on theatrical conventions is so prevalent that Henham cannot resist ending his novel with a masked ball in which the forces of good and evil are personified by two figures masked as Tragedy and Comedy. The partygoers are in for more than mere dancing and merriment when knives and swords are brandished to the accompaniment of jingling bells, mad laughter and a roaring fire.

A Bacchanal by Jan Brueghel & Hendrik Van Balen
ca. 1608 - 1616. from the Speed Art Museum

INNOVATIONS: There is a scene in which Dr. Berry receives messages from the ancient spirits that inhabit the Strath via automatic writing. He transcribes these messages in ancient Greek. When he comes out of his surreal trance and reads the pages he wrote unknowingly, he is astonished that the grammar and vocabulary is that of Attic Greek, an ancient language rarely encountered in the texts he is working on. He happens to be translating Greek poetry by Sappho at the start of the novel and those texts have been altered slightly to reflect modern Greek language. Dr. Berry is convinced that he has been used a conduit for the long dead spirits of his much respected heroes and heroines of antiquity. But to his horror the manuscript ends with a single phrase in English: "Damn you, Professor. You were right." He knows this admission can only have come from the spirit of Henry Reed.

As the story progresses each character transforms and they become inhabited by the forces of Tragedy or Comedy according to their own closely held secrets. Flora is driven to attempt murder out of jealousy, Maude faints when she sees visions of her own murderous thoughts. Conversely, Dr. Berry gives in to his latent sensuality and falls in love with Maude. The house exerts its influence not only on living beings but inanimate objects including the two Greek masks with a truly horrible secret about how they were created and the diary of Winnifred Hooper, a long dead former occupant of the Strath. Just listening to the diary be read aloud, for example, allows a personality transformation to take place.

The entire structure of the novel, subtitled "A Study in Dramatic Atmosphere", is modeled after a work of drama. The sections of the novel become acts of a play, the chapters are scenes labeled after various classical types of poetry and styles of playwriting like melodrama, musical comedy, and even Puppenspiele (German for puppet show). Enhancing the overall feel of a visit to a theatrical production Henham also includes an Overture, Entr'acte, Interlude and a chapter titled "Scene Shifting" (a phrase stagehands are well familiar with) in which we learn the terrible origins of the two masks carved and decorated by a corrupt and immoral German toymaker named Joseph Falk.

QUOTES: "They that be broke be took, sir. When I be broke I'll be took, and my son will say, 'Good-bye, father' and wait for 'is turn."

"Like us the Strath has its moods. Sometimes it is happy, and often it is sorrowful. It must either laugh or groan. And now you will change it all. You will restore the house, dig up the garden...and lay the Strath out like a dead body."

"The garden is your inheritance. That is the soul of the Strath. This is the dry body."

"You can't strike a bargain with unrepentant souls. You must employ drastic measures, and the only ways of getting rid of a spiritual nuisance is by using fresh bricks and mortar."

They who behold a tragedy see only the outward passions of the actors; of the influence which is behind they can see nothing. So one may see the tree tormented by the wind, but not see the wind.

"The idea of calling me wicked!" exclaimed Mrs. Juxon indignantly. "A married woman has certain flirting privileges, but an unmarried girl has none."

"It is because the house has a soul," went on Conway, as though she had not answered. "Because it lives and breathes, and has moods like us. [...] The Strath resembles you and me, in that it contains spirit, which, while it remains, preserves the fabric from corruption."

Squarson - a squire who is also a rector. A neologism made from combining the words "squire" and "parson".

Thymele is one of the many Greek theatrical terms I rediscovered. I'm sure I must've been first introduced to the concept of the church and the theater being related in "Intro to Theater History" back in my undergrad days but I've long forgotten all the terminology. The thymele is the name given to the ancient altar positioned in front of the orchestra in the first Greek theaters. All the plays were offered as performances and worship to specific gods and the altar was where sacrifices were placed.

When Conway asks how far reaching are the legends of the ghosts in the Strath Mr. Price remarks, offhandedly, "About the time Wolfe was chasing Montcalm out of Quebec." as if everyone is equipped with a memory of such arcane history. I hadn't a clue what that meant. Price is referring to James Wolfe, Louis Montcalm and the capture of Quebec City in 1759. Apparently Wolfe was a well regarded British general who made his name in that battle. Lost to history and me, I'm sad to report. Maybe Canadians would know the two men better. Henham, after all, lived there for a while and was fascinated especially with the history of Quebec having written The Plowshare and the Sword: A Tale of Old Quebec (1903).

Dashing Ernest Henham, credited as
"formerly Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company",
as seen in Wide World Magazine, Aug 1901
THE AUTHOR: Ernest Henham was born in London, lived in Canada for a while where he worked for the Hudson Bay Company. Under his own name he wrote the Gothic horror novel Tenebrae (1898) among numerous other novels of all genres well regarded by his contemporaries. Around 1908 he turned to writing novels about Dartmoor where he had retired to recuperate from ill health. These books were published under the pseudonym "John Trevena".

EASY TO FIND? Several of Henham's books including The Feast of Bacchus as well as a few under his John Trevena pen name have been reprinted by Valancourt Books. This is the edition I own and I'd say the only one worth having for its usual handsome design, easy readability and, more importantly, for Gerald Monsman's introductory literary essay on the novel and Henham's life. Valancourt offers all their books in print, digital and now audio book editions. There is no audio version of The Feast of Bacchus, but there ought to be. I cannot imagine a better candidate for that radio drama style of reading a book than this chilling tale of ghosts, possession, obsession and madness.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Sherlock Holmes" - Sparks

Fog matters to you and me, but it can't touch Sherlock Holmes

This song has been covered a couple times by other minor indie rock groups, but the original by 80s new wave group Sparks is still the best. Loads of YouTube videos use this song mostly showing stills and video clips of Cumberbatch. Pass on all of those. I'm going with this well done video showing good ol' stalwart Holmes actor Basil Rathbone in a series of scenes from his movies.


Spend the night with Sherlock Holmes
Hold me tight like Sherlock Holmes
Just pretend I'm Sherlock Holmes

Written by Ronald D Mael, Russell Craig Mael •  ©1982, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Imagem Music Inc

Friday, October 14, 2016

FFB: The Goddess: A Demon - Richard Marsh

THE STORY: John Ferguson witnesses the gruesome murder of his neighbor and gambling rival at the hands of a knife wielding cloaked figure. Moments later a woman appears at his bedroom window. He lets her in and sees she is drenched in blood. She cannot remember her name, where she lives, how she came to be at his window or why she is wearing a blood-soaked cloak. In fact, she can recall nothing not even whether John is the name of a man or woman. Ferguson is bewitched by her beauty, vaguely recalls having seen her somewhere and is certain she has nothing to do with his neighbor's death despite her gruesome state of her clothing and the coincidence of her sudden appearance so shortly after the murder. He sets out to discover who she is, why she came to the building and who really killed Edwin Lawrence and why.

CHARACTERS: The Goddess: A Demon (1900) is narrated by John Ferguson, a typical sensation novel protagonist of the early 20th century. He's ridiculously wealthy but we have no idea what he does for living. Extremely tall, with an intimidatingly athletic build and a volatile temper Ferguson is very much like the numerous musclebound playboys who will turn up in American hero pulps and comic books fighting criminals as a lark. He has a self-deprecating wit often calling himself an idiot and stupid for not seeing things clearly and acting on impulse. But his talent for quick put downs and emasculating language calls to mind the smart aleck private eyes of the 1930s and 1940s. There are several times when others comment on Ferguson's "persuasive manner" -- a euphemistic and ironic way to call attention to his penchant for talking with his fists and roughhousing disagreeable men. There's a lot to like about Ferguson even if he has a tendency (as do many of Marsh's characters) to drone on in an artificial manner of speech, even for an Edwardian man: "Mr Morley, be at ease, fear nothing. You are the sole proprietor of your own tongue, use it to preserve silence..." A gentlemanly, yet snide way to tell someone to shut up.

The woman is soon identified as a notable actress through some rudimentary detective work occasioned by formulaic clues: a letter signed B, a handkerchief with the initials E.M., and -- most convenient of all -- a photograph stamped on the reverse with the name of a well known professional studio. This last allows Ferguson not only to confirm the woman's identity but find out her home address. That's the extent of the detective work. There are a handful of police characters led by a generic inspector, but the investigation of the murder takes a backseat to the uncovering of the woman's identity and Ferguson's determination to clear her name. He goes to great lengths to protect even to manufacturing a patently false case for himself as the killer. Inspector Symonds sees through it almost immediately.

Supporting characters include a series of servants, various ruffians, and notably the unctuous Dr. Hume, a "mental pathologist" who serves as Ferguson's foil.  Hume is a quasi-villain just as determined to prove that Ferguson is not only obstructing justice but that he is most likely insane. He plays detective by breaking into Ferguson's room and finding the incriminating bloodstained cloak that Ferguson foolishly wadded up and shoved in the back of his wardrobe rather than destroying it. Dr. Hume actually believes nearly everyone he encounters is mad in one way or another. We get to listen to his theories about all sorts of mental illnesses from outright insanity to "brain fever."  He's an insufferable ass when he's interacting with Ferguson and Marsh clearly has some less than favorable ideas about the arrogance and overwrought egos of men of science.

Another foil to Ferguson is Miss Adair, actress and roommate to the amnesiac woman known as Bessie. The scenes between these two offer Marsh more opportunities to revel in his sarcastic sense of humor which enlivens a story that has a tendency to spill over into indulgently lurid melodrama. Miss Adair is amused by Ferguson's head over heels infatuation with her roommate and can't help but ridicule his beauty worship.

The criminal activity is not just confined to savage murder. A stereotyped Jewish moneylender named Isaac Bernstein plays an important part in the story. Money, debts, forgery and financial chicanery all rear their ugly heads by the midpoint. At the start Ferguson was seen gambling at cards with Lawrence who the reader knows has cheated him. Lawrence has a habit of keeping a "debt diary" which describes how Ferguson owes him a total £1880. No better motive could have been handed to the police. Couple this with Dr. Hume's discovery of the bloody cloak and things do not look good at all for our temperamental hero.

Richard Marsh,
in his later years, circa 1910s
QUOTES"It is possible for persons of even ripened years to feel surprised, as you will discover when you yourself attain to years of discretion."

With scant ceremony he endeavored, without a word of explanation, to force his way into the house. I am not a man with whom every one finds it easy to play that kind of game. When I am pushed, I push. Placing my hand against his chest, he went backwards across the pavement at a run.

"I don't fancy, Mr. Ferguson, that all women are built exactly on Bessie's lines."
"Would that they were. Miss Moore is the stuff of which our mothers should be made."
She looked at me a little sideways; I was conscious of it, though I myself looked straight ahead.
"Are you married, Mr. Ferguson?"
"No, I am not so fortunate."
"Ah! I shouldn't be surprised if you were so fortunate a little later on."

He was an out-size in policemen; all of five foot ten, well set up, with a carriage which denoted muscle. Fortunately for my purpose, his face did not point to a surplus of brains; he struck me as being stupid as I was.

Coroner at the inquest: "Witness, look at me."
Ferguson, who has previously been evading his questions with banter:  "If you desire it, with the greatest pleasure. Though there doesn't seem to be much to look at."

THINGS I LEARNED: The edition I read is a modern reprint and heavily annotated by Richard Marsh expert Minna Vuohelainen. There are over 100 footnotes on period vocabulary, literary allusions and London geography. Some of it interesting, but much of it unnecessary. Does a literary scholar really need to footnote well known literary figures like Hercules, Samson, Echo; basic Latin like non compos mentis, ipso facto, ergo; as well as defining words and terms like lasso, promissory note, and letting us know that "all the kings horses and all the king's men" refers to Humpty Dumpty?  This is patronizing scholarship at its most annoying. I kept flipping back to read all of the notes with increasing astonishment.  I did think the London geographical notes were vital and useful. But so many of the endnotes were insulting in their pedantry.

But there were also blatant oversights in these endnotes. Like the paragraph in which we learn that Miss Adair and Ferguson are seated while traveling up to the seventh floor in an electric lift. I had no idea early elevators in England were equipped with seats for the passengers. Vuohelainen makes sure to give us the dates of the invention of electricity, the phonograph, the typewriter, and the elevator each time they are mentioned but neglects to point out the fascinating detail of seats in the lift when mentioned. Twice in a single paragraph, no less.

Ferguson lives in what must have been the 1900 version of a state-of-the-art luxury apartment building. It is seven stories tall, has electric lights not gas, two electrically powered elevators (one for servants, another for residents), a full staff of valets and maids for each floor plus a housekeeper and cook who provided breakfast for residents. He mentions at one point in the book that he carries more money on him than most people: £100 in notes and £20 in sovereigns. This is the equivalent of £14,000 (US$11,471) in 2016 currency! At no point on the book do we ever learn what he does for a living, but it's obvious he's wealthy whatever his profession. His cavalier attitude and quick temper might have a lot to do with the entitlement of the rich.

Interestingly, though the book is very much about gambling, spendthrift lifestyle, usury and financial irresponsibility Vuohelainen does not discuss money, finance or wealth at all in her lengthy introduction. Rather she devotes much of her lecturing on a section entitled "Modernity and mental health" going so far as to cite specific usage of words like idiot, lunatic, maniac and all references to madness to drive home her point. But to my mind the use of the word idiot, almost always spoken by Ferguson about himself, as well as all the other synonyms are all used quite obviously in the vernacular.  Only when Dr. Hume is talking about madness are any of these terms directly related to mental health or lack of it. Throughout the novel it is Hume alone who is obsessed with mental illness and madness.

EASY TO FIND?  Thanks to Valancourt Books The Goddess: A Demon is available in their usual handsomely designed paperback books as well as a digital version. There are other POD reprints of many of Richard Marsh's books since they've all lapsed the copyright laws but I'd recommend any of the Valancourt editions. The biographical information in Vuohelainen's introduction I found to be the most interesting. The "literary analysis" I thought to be mostly misguided and spurious and ended up skipping over almost all of it.  There are also seven appendices on topics incidentally raised in the novel such as "Alcohol and personality" and "Women, nerves and sexuality".  Of these appendices the most compelling is the collection of contemporary newspaper reviews of Marsh's novel. It's always interesting to read what people of the time thought of what amounts to the precursor of pulp fiction.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Acquisition Madness, part 2

Here's part 2 of the books I purchased during the summer.  Plus the best of the vintage paperbacks I picked up yesterday afternoon on the first day of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference Book Sale.  Lovely sunny autumn day to be down in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, about 20 miles south from our condo way up in Rogers Park.

The top half shows a collection of hardbacks with DJs we bought at the fabulous Jackson Books in Omaha, Nebraska.  The only reason we visited Omaha was to see the new exhibits at the very impressively designed zoo. Then we investigated the restaurant scene and by chance found Jackson Books nestled in a bustling and touristy entertainment district. Nebraska is also one of the states I'd never visited. Every summer for the past ten years we try to visit at least two new states. Last year we knocked off Kansas from that list. Six left (Wyoming, Idaho, Vermont, West Virginia, and the Dakotas) and I'll have been to all 50 states in the country.

Click to enlarge the paperback photos for more detail.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Raymond Chandler Evening" - Robyn Hitchcock

There's a body on the railings
That I can't identify
And I'd like to reassure you but
I'm not that kind of guy

This is a moody tune evocative of walking down those mean streets. The lyrics are nicely metaphoric in the mid section which is also fitting for Marlowe's creator. "Raymond Chandler Evening" was originally recorded by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians for their sixth album Element of Light back in 1985.  I was surprised to see that he's still performing all over the world as a solo act.  This is a favorite song of his and you'll find several uploaded videos of him performing it in places like upstate New York, Ashville, NC and even Valencia, Spain.  But I didn't like the visual or musical quality of any of them. So here's the music (a re-recorded version for a Hitchcock "Best of" box set) with no video, just a static picture of the I Wanna Go Backwards album cover. Imagine on your own a fog shrouded Los Angeles street, a lonely man smoking a cigarette while contemplating the autumn weather and his lost love.

It's a Raymond Chandler evening
And the pavements are all wet
And I'm lurking in the shadows
'Cause it hasn't happened yet

Friday, October 7, 2016

FFB: The Hex Murder - Forrester Hazard

THE STORY: Awakened by a drip from the ventilation shaft in his bedroom Robert Crocker, not so successful Greenwich Village painter, goes to investigate. Looks like there might be some sort of leak in his girlfriend's apartment upstairs. When he arrives, the door is open and his girlfriend is dead -- a blood soaked corpse in a blood drenched room. She is obviously the victim of a vicious throat cutting. A hex sign is found chalked on the brickwork of her fireplace. Piles of letters from her Amish mother indicate that she was in danger. Peter Adams, intrepid newspaper reporter, travels to Erwinna, PA to learn the truth about the dead girl, why she fled her home, and who was after her. He gets help from Sheriff Reed and a lawyer both of whom have an amazing amount of arcane knowledge on everything from graphology to cabalistic signs to the mysterious ways of the Amish hex doctor.

THE CHARACTERS: Peter Adams is one of hundreds of reporter sleuths so incredibly popular in detective fiction from the 1930s through the early 1950s. He's eager to get to the bottom of all the various mysteries surrounding the grisly death of Marguerite Scholl. What's remarkable about The Hex Murder (1935) is not only its fast paced, well told, and gripping story but how modern it all seems. It has a sort of The Night Stalker and X Files feel to it. Though there is not one iota of the supernatural nor any appearance of other worldly creatures in the book, the atmosphere is tinged with eerie events and macabre beliefs. Sheriff Reed with his extensive knowledge of Amish superstition and folk medicine comes off as a sort of 1930s version of Kolchak. The intriguing lectures from Martin Randall, the Renaissance man lawyer, sound like the kind of "info dumps" Fox Mulder would launch into during an episode of The X Files. But none of it is ever dreary. The entire book is handled with panache and verve.

Adams is assisted by Houston King, one of Robert Crocker's woman artist friends who is determined to clear her friend's name. Crocker, of course, is the prime suspect. He is found in bloodstained pajamas when the police arrive and the razor used to murder Marguerite conveniently turns up in his bathroom. He hasn't a clue how it got there. Houston makes a fine female sidekick for Adams and together they are far from the cliché amateur detective duo you'd expect in a pulp fiction story of this era. I also liked the brief scene with Miriam, a vain publicity seeking chorus girl who worked with Marguerite in a few cheesy dance shows. Adams sees right through her phony sympathy and concern and calls her on her self-interest.

When the story travels to Pennsylvania Dutch country the story really picks up and Hazard revels in all things macabre and unusual. Among the supporting Amish characters we get the oddball Conrad Reifmeyer, a powwow man (more about that below) who enjoys threatening others with dire Biblical quotations. Marguerite's family, the Krugers, are an unusual bunch led by a typically stern father who is succumbing to a terminal illness, her mother is the most sympathetically portrayed of the family while her ostensibly simple-minded brother gives us a surprisingly heroic display at a climactic moment. Dr. Schneider provides the characters and the reader with all the background on Amish folk medicine and his daily battle with naive superstition. Though he confesses he is not above taking advantage of Amish folklore by supplementing his modern medicine with a prescription of a "hex paper" to ward off evil intent.

INNOVATIONS: This may be the first cultural detective novel of its kind. I know of no other mystery from 1935 or earlier in which the plot relies so heavily on Amish life, culture and folklore. As an example of what I like to call "country noir" it also includes some brilliantly realized rural incidents integral to the plot. The climax, for example, features a publicity stunt involving herding sheep with the help of what everyone thinks is a very stupid dog. Pete finds an expert trainer to get the dog to learn some neat sheep herding skills. Everyone is surprised at how quickly and well the dog performs. Amazingly, this stunt will also trip up the vain murderer who gives himself away at the key moment. I've never read a better and more original denouement in a Golden Age detective novel. And it all makes perfect sense as well as belonging specifically to this realistically portrayed milieu.

QUOTES: "I've found Hackmen [cabbies] are as a rule all right or all wrong. In either case they'll give you a break when you're in a jam. If they're all right, like this one was, they'll help because they're good guys; if they're all wrong they'll help you out and then shake you down."

John Reed directed them with the surety of a man who had spent all of his life in the locality. He knew the contour and outline of every tree and bush, could name a farm or its occupant by the slope of a barn roof or the silhouette of a silo.

"We medical men are not half as bigoted as the rest of the world believes us to be. We are perfectly willing to admit that 'there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in the practice of the rites of Aesculapius.'"

"A flock of sheep is a Hell of an alibi," Pete mourned, "but it looks to me like it'll hold."

[Reifmayer] was a singularly moving sight, yet the emotion he stirred in Pete was that most indefinite one of all, a queasy feeling of dislike and distrust, mingled with disgust. Pete was reminded of Cromwell's puritan troopers, who could find Biblical quotations to justify all of their atrocities.

THINGS I LEARNED: As you might imagine I got an overdose on Amish culture, especially their folklore and superstitions, while reading The Hex Murders. All of it was engrossing and fascinating.

As witches are believed to fly through the air or take to riding brooms so are Amish hexers given to magical transportation. They are said to ride horses through the air! So you want to keep anyone suspected of being a hexer away from your stables lest they be tempted to some sinister night riding.

A hexa-donz is the name given to an area in a field where a hexer has done his night riding. Sheriff Reeds tells Pete Adams that they're the Amish equivalent of fairy rings. He says you can always tell when a horse has been hijacked by a hexer for a night ride because it'll be found in a hexa-donz with its "tail and mane ...all tangled up and he would be heaving and puffing."

A powwow man or a hex doctor has his own instruction manual of sorts called The Hidden Friend. Well, to be accurate the true title of this powwow handbook is The Long Lost Friend by Johann Georg Hohman. It's written in the German dialect of Pennsylvania Dutch and filled with spells, hex signs, herbal remedies and other instructions. One of these is a "Release" that the characters find in Marguerite's apartment and it supposedly can reverse the power of a curse.

Reifmayer is accused of putting a bloody hex on the Kruger family. This is why Marguerite was sent away by her mother. But she was killed anyway and not too coincidentally by throat cutting. Kruger was driven almost mad with fear and paranoia. He wouldn't have a cat or dog on the farm for fear of being bitten, drawing blood and dying. Yet when Herman Kruger becomes ill and dies of a fatal hemorrhage (horribly described in gruesome detail) the people in Erwinna believe that the hex worked.

EASY TO FIND? For the first time this year I've found a truly rare book. As of this post there are less than five copies is exactly one copy (!) offered for sale from the usual online bookselling sites. If I were in the reprint business I'd reissue this one in a heartbeat. Truly unique, extremely entertaining, and a damn fine mystery with a shocker of an ending. Every now and then there's a really good mystery novel out there, eager to be read, and hardly a copy for anyone to get their hands on to enjoy. ...sigh...

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Late Summer Acquisition Madness, part 1

Looking over Tracy's post at Bitter Tea and Mystery about her book finds from the Planned Parenthood Sale she attended got me thinking of the bags of books I acquired over the summer. Here's a collection of what I picked up in a midsummer trip to Nashville a while ago. This is a mix of hardcovers with jackets, one vintage book from 1919, and several vintage paperbacks.

The hardcover mysteries were all purchased at BookMan BookWoman and were on sale for $9.95 each. I could easily have spent an awful lot of money there, but I decided to restrain myself and be selective. Wild Justice (reviewed here) was also purchased with this lot. The paperbacks (shown first) all came from the Rhino Books location in the Lipscomb University neighborhood. An impressive but small vintage and collectible paperback section at that store, but on ridiculously high shelves that challenged my stretching abilities (I couldn't find a step stool1) The other Rhino Books location was closed the day we were book hunting. If ever in Nashville I highly recommend you visit these two used bookstores. Both are general used bookstores with quite a variety of fiction and non-fiction in all categories.

Above is the frontispiece from the US first edition of Something Doing (1919) by Varick Vanardy, a thriller featuring master criminal Crewe, "the Two-Faced Man." My copy has no jacket and a boring typographic cover so opted for the inside illustration by George W. Gage instead which was used to adorn the original DJ.

The next two books I bought at the Lake Forest Public Library book sale held every September. I thought I'd add them into the mix because they were rather exciting finds for me.

This is a sequel to Murder in a Nunnery which I reviewed back in 2013. I've been looking for the second title ever since. Couldn't pass up this copy (one buck!) in the scarce dust jacket even if it's chipped and torn.

Unnatural Causes, the third book in the Adam Dalgliesh series, is a rather scarce 1st American edition. The copy I found is in superior condition, with only minor creasing to the bottom of the excellent dust jacket. I got it for a mere $20. Can't help but brag about the steals I encounter in my book collecting.

Next week I'll post the books I picked up at an earlier trip to Omaha and the remainder of the books from the Lake Forest sale.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Nancy Drew" - Relient K

I got this thing for Nancy Drew
Her hair is blond, her eyes are blue

Time to rejoin the 21st century. I love when someone takes a modern pop tune and juxtaposes it with good old-fashioned movies in glorious black and white. What better choice to illustrate this guitar infused anthem to the queen of girl sleuths than a series of clips from the Bonita Granville movies? And don't forget Frankie Thomas as Ted (not Ned) Nickerson. (Guess the screenwriters didn't like that alliteration.)

One time these criminals with their guns
They thought it would be fun
To try to kill my
Nancy Drew
I jumped out and saved her life
Then asked her to be my wife
She said, "No, I'll never marry you!"

Written by Brian Lee Pittman, Matthew Arnold Thiessen, Matthew Ryan Hoopes, Stephen Cushman
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group