31 October 2008

The Riddler’s Halloween—Part II

The Riddler, oil on canvas, ca. 1910

I’ve gone to five Haunted Halloween Balls in Pasadena, and last night’s was certainly the best one. I stayed ‘til late, absolutely jacked up on nothing more than the energy of what a great Halloween costume party is supposed to be. The entire grand ballroom was packed, and 98% of the people were in costumed. I enjoyed plenty of dancing to keep my manic energy flowing—for once, I has worn a costume that allows movement—and thrilled myself with throwing out riddle and riddle to people all around. By the time I left I was hoarse and exhausted…but filled with the powerful energy that only Halloween parties can create.

There are so many reasons why I love the holiday, and the liberating effect of the Halloween party is one of main ones. People come together in such wonderful and unusual ways when tricked out in weird outfits, ranging from humorous to macabre to plain confusing. The barriers that sometime separate us in normal parties, or in everyday life, crash down in the madness of disguise and discovery. Put on a costume, feel the freedom. The décor of the holiday, a mixture of the darkness and the light, morbidity meets playfulness, brings out the best in people. Halloween is the universal holiday; it brings people together who on other holidays would not be together and feel so open.

Speech over. Now for raw data.

Believe it or not, there were no Jokers last night! I expected at least three, but everybody must have expected too many Clown Princes of Crime and went for something else. There were three other Gotham City villains present, and when it cam time for the costume contest, the four of us were submitted as a group (we didn’t plan this, but whatever works). So here is the evil quartet of Harley Quinn, The Riddler, Two-Face, and Poison Ivy:
As for other costumes, my personal favorite was someone (I have no idea who) in a Bender from Futurama costume that looked liked it needed metallurgic facilities to put together. Amazingly, he (or she, again, I have no idea) didn’t win. The winners were three men who dressed as Depression-era hobos as comment on current economics. Nice execution, but sorry…Bender should’ve won.

There were at least three Sarah Palins. I “riddled” this: “What is the job of the VP?” Of course, they didn’t know. I like it when people stay in character.

And what else? The Marx Bros., two people in a “Yes of Prop. 2” costume set consisting of chickens in cages, various Matrix variations, Dr. Evil, a very impressive (and top-heavy) Predator outfit, a Droog, Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a couple of leftover pirates from the deluge last year, the Phantom of the Opera, and a Victorian Steampunk cabal.

More and more photos:
Lisa once danced for Caliph al-Rashid

Yes, that is somebody’s thumb in the corner. I tried to crop it.

With my good friend Sam Suplee

Costumed criminals attract all kinds of beautiful women (a hooked cane helps)

And that’s all…until next year and the greatest Holiday on Earth™ returns!

The Riddler’s Halloween—Part I

The Haunted Halloween Ball was a blast. I stayed until the end—which will have dire consequences for me tomorrow at work, but this wonderful holiday comes but once a year and I am going all out. I’ll have a more detailed report tomorrow with yummy weird photos. (Not to keep you in suspense: I did get in the finals for the costume contest, but did not win—which was as I expected. I’m happy enough that people loved the costume.)

But for now, enjoy this… and remember it was only a few months ago that the costume was nothing more than a post-it on a St. Patrick’s day hat.

The music of “Watch the World Burn” from The Dark Knight composed by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer.

The answers to the riddles are, in order:
  • His autobiography
  • A stamp
  • A lawsuit
  • The school is an orphanage

29 October 2008

Last days for the poll

There are only two more days left to vote in my poll for your favorite foundational weird story writers. Currently, Edgar Allan Poe leads with 58% of the vote, with H. P. Lovecraft close behind with 44%. Stoker is in third with 41%, with M. R. James and Arthur Machen tying for fourth with 24% each. Bierce hasn’t done poorly with 20%, but poor Le Fanu hovers with only two votes for a platry 6%. Chambers has one lonely vote so far, and I’m not surprised; he’s the most obscure fellow on the list. (But give him a try.) “Other” has three votes, which I suppose stands in for Algernon Blackwood, whom I foolishly forgot to add to the list in the first place.

Tomorrow is the major Halloween party I’m attending, where the Riddler costume comes out in full force, as does my Riddler persona. The party is held at the Masonic Lodge in Pasadena, a grand old 1926 building that looks quite spooky at Halloween with its back-lit Neo-Classical columned front. The LindyGroove Haunted Halloween Ball is always my favorite costume party of the year. And for once, I’m wearing a costume that allows me to dance without seriously endangering myself or the girl I’m dancing with.

Yes, there will be photos the next day. Here is a picture of the haunted foyer of the spooky Masonic Lodge to keep you in suspense:

28 October 2008

Classic Science Fantasy: The Face in the Abyss

The Face in the Abyss
A. Merritt (1931)

I’ve had some recent dealings with the classic “Lost Race” trope, first in the ordinary thriller novel The Charlemagne Pursuit, and then in the interesting but flawed 1935 film version of H. Rider Haggard’s She. The pulp magazine authors would embrace lost civilizations, and Edgar Rice Burroughs found one under practically every stone in his stories.

But the lost civilization was also the specialty of A. (Abraham) Merritt, a journalist and novelist who was one of the most popular science-fiction and fantasy authors of the first half of the twentieth century. Today, he’s almost forgotten, even though his conventions continue to appear in popular fantasy-adventure stories up to… well, The Charlemagne Pursuit.

Merritt lavished an imaginative perspective onto his lost civilization novels that no one had seen previously. Novels like The Moon Pool, The Metal Monster, and The Ship of Ishtar created science-fantasy vistas as astonishing as they were sometimes verbose. His steel-jawed heroes, archetypes if there ever were any, would battle for love and life across worlds of the weird. The Face in the Abyss is yet another of his once-popular novels of adventurers in an otherworldly hidden civilization that has fallen into the out-of-print, out-of-mind limbo.

Just doing my job, bringing it up.

27 October 2008

Movie review: The Haunting

The Haunting (1963)
Directed by Robert Wise. Starring Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell

To understand my view of the 1963 film The Haunting, you have to know the two directions from which I approach it.

On one side, I view Robert Wise’s movie through the cracked, cheap plastic prism of the 1999 re-make directed by Jan de Bont—quite possibly the worst re-make ever. It does every single thing wrong, wrecks every moment that worked about the original. Even the score from Jerry Goldsmith, my favorite film composer, is lackluster. I had previously written that to do a proper review of the first Haunting would require a full comparison to the de Bont Haunting, and that would mean going back and watching the 1999 film. I’ve finally decided to big blue blazes with that torture. I’m not going to compare the two films any further than this paragraph. Perhaps this whole review will serve as therapy for me where I erase the re-make from my memory. I won’t mention the re-make again. I’m sorry I even brought it up.

The second approach to The Haunting comes from its source novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959. I read the book before seeing the movie, and I can say without the slightest hesitation that I think it is the greatest supernatural horror novel ever penned. Few books have left me so awestruck as The Haunting of Hill House. It has the best opening paragraph of any novel I’ve read, and Jackson carries on the tension and fear and isolation from start to finish. It’s a masterpiece of characterization and mood—and yes, it will quietly scare the hell out of you.

Robert Wise’s black-and-white mounting of the movie version is one of the most respectful adaptations of any novel, right up there with Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Director Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding understood what made the book wonderful, and put it on screen as best they could, changing only what needed to change to make it fit in the different medium. The bulls-eye casting, the oppressive art design, and striking photography all pay perfect homage to the aura of the book.

Is The Haunting my favorite horror movie? Ask me on different days, you’ll get a different answer. But right now, on this late October day approaching the wonderful 31st of the Month, I can give you a solid “yes.”

Here’s where you’ll find “Quantum of Solace”

Amidst all the Halloween, election, and NaNoWriMo hoopla, we can easily forget that there is a James Bond movie coming out in theaters on November 14th. It’s a direct sequel to 2006’s Casino Royale and sports the odd title Quantum of Solace. Odd unless you’re a Fleming Purist like I am; “Quantum of Solace” is the title of a short story in the collection For Your Eyes Only, the subject of today’s Department of Book Reviews. However, don’t expect any similarities between story and movie, as you’ll discover when I go over the story’s premise. The movie will follow up directly on events on Casino Royale. Although I enjoyed that film, the first to adapt Fleming closely in many years, I still have extreme reservations about Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond, which is nowhere near Fleming’s character. If you want to see how Fleming’s James Bond acts, watch Sean Connery in Dr. No and Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights, which are the two closest portrayals to Fleming’s character. Craig is a skilled actor, but so far I’ve seen him play James Bond as a brutish lout with no self-control… and that isn’t James Bond. Let’s hope for improvement. (Update: Improvement? The series just jumped in a hole and dragged the hole with it!)

Enough about the new film. Let’s turn to a collection of shorts that furnished a few titles, and a surprising amount of material to the earlier films.

For Your Eyes Only
By Ian Fleming (Jonathan Cape, 1960)

Three of the five novelettes in For Your Eyes Only originate in a proposed CBS James Bond TV show. Fleming wrote story treatments for the program, but when it never materialized, he turned the material into short fiction and collected it here, along with two pieces previously published in periodicals. Three of the stories, “From a View to a Kill,” “For Your Eyes Only,” and “Risico,” are adventure stories following the structure of Fleming’s novels in condensed form. “Hildebrand Rarity” and “Quantum of Solace” are experimental pieces that have very little in the way of secret service action. “Quantum of Solace” has no action at all, actually.

For Your Eyes Only is my favorite story in the collection, but “The Hildebrand Rarity” comes in a close second. “For Your Eyes Only” is not only a superb action-adventure story, it also tells a great deal about how Bond views his his role as Her Majesty’s assassin—or, in this case, M’s personal equalizer. M has learned that friends of his, the Havelocks, have died under the gun of a Cuban assassin hired by a sinister Mr. Hammerstein. Off-the-record, M wants Bond to find the killers in their Vermont forest hideaway and do what has to be done:
There were no doubts in Bond’s mind. He didn’t know the Havelocks or care who they were. Hammerstein had operated the law of the jungle on two defenseless old people. Since no other law was available, the law of the jungle should be visited upon Hammerstein. In no other way could justice be done. If it was revenge, it was the revenge of the community.

“These people can’t be hung, sir. But they ought to be killed.”
Terrific stuff. We learn a lot about M in the story as well, and Judy Havelock is a fiery character who would have been wonderful in a full-length novel. In general, the pacing and story are perfect for the novelette size, and show Fleming working with the format structure like a pro.

The Hildebrand Rarity lets Fleming show off two of his greatest writing skills: the underwater world, and the portraiture of a disgusting villain. Perhaps we don’t think of Milton Krest immediately as a “villain”; he isn’t an Auric Goldfinger or a Hugo Drax, or even a lesser adversary like Seraffimo Spang in Diamonds are Forever. But he’s grotesque and despicable in Fleming’s hands and seen through Bond’s eyes. Many of us can remember meeting someone like him in real life, something we can’t say about Doctor No! (At least, I hope not.) The “massacre” Krest commits on the sea life in order to get the fish of the title is described with all the emotion of watching humans get mowed down in cold blood. It seems strange that Fleming would cast any suspicion on Fidele concerning Krest’s death, since it is clearly his abused wife Liz who is guilty of murdering the disgusting pig. Fidele just hasn’t been given much reason up until the very end to do Krest in, so Fleming’s late addition of this seems artificial. That’s my only complaint about this excellent story that puts Bond up against a human drama that plays out to its violent end before his eyes and against the backdrop of the tropical world the author loved so much.

Quantum of Solace comes across as the parlor room version of “The Hildebrand Rarity,” as Bond sits in a room after a party and hears a story from the governor of the Bahamas about another marriage that changed into deep loathing and eventual recrimination. It’s an interesting piece, although one I do not enjoy as much as some other Bond readers have; I think the shadow cast by the “The Hildebrand Rarity” is a hard one for “Quantum of Solace” to escape. The most intriguing aspect of the story is seeing Bond confront the ‘normal’ world, and realize that sometimes it is more interesting than the supposedly thrilling world of the spy. Fleming tells Bond, and us, that everyone has within them some incredible tale—and the surface will rarely indicate it. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a dinner guest by their dull patter.

As you can imagine, an after-dinner story about a failed marriage will not make much impression on the upcoming movie Quantum of Solace. But it was an available Fleming title, so why not?

I can never muster much enthusiasm for either Risico or From a View to a Kill. They provide action and a bit of intrigue, but neither is memorable or contains any gripping scenes that stay with me afterwards. I can see these tales as examples of the more basic assignments that Bond goes on when not getting launched into a novel-worthy adventure. “Risico” is just too dense, and should have been expanded into a novella, since the Kristatos-Colombo conflict could have been worked into something quite operatic. “From a View to a Kill” does tell us how Bond lost his virginity, but other than that I find it only passable.

“From A View to a Kill” provides absolutely nothing to the movie titled A View to a Kill. Any similarities, and I’ve yet to find one, are purely coincidental. “Risico,” on the other hand, provides half the plot to the movie For Your Eyes Only, the other half coming from the title story.

25 October 2008

NaNoWriMo Kick-Off Party!

Tonight I attended my first National Novel Writing Month Kick-Off party, a meeting of people from the L.A. region who, starting November 1st, will attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. The get-together was held at the historic Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles, well-known for years as the place Hollywood screenwriters would gather for lunch and complain about the studios and the producers. A place rich in history for novelists. Today it has gotten increasingly crowded because of The Grove, an outdoor mall catering to the Beverly Hills crowd.

About forty people from the very large L.A. region of NaNoWriMo gathered, ate, and talked about what we’re planning on writing. My table definitely had the fantasy slant. A number of people were interested in seeing my NEO, which gets a lot of promotion through NaNoWriMo.

Here’s a photo of our happy group at our table. I’m on the left, posing with my NEO.

24 October 2008

Movie Review: Rodan

Rodan (1956)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata.

In our second film from a recent kaiju DVD double feature, we have Sora no Daikaiju Radon (“Rodan, Giant Monster of the Skies”), released in 1957 in the U.S. as Rodan. It was the first Japanese giant monster film released in color, a huge move considering that less than ten percent of the movies made in Japan that year were in color.

Rodan really signaled the beginning of Toho Studios’ monster phase. Godzilla was an enormous success in 1954, but would it necessarily lead to more big monsters? A sequel, Godzilla Raids Again came out only six months later. It made some money, but since it was a quickie done cheaper and with less inspiration than the original, it made little impression on the Japanese film industry. Godzilla wouldn’t come back to the screen until 1962 and King Kong vs. Godzilla.

But Toho Studios wanted to peer a bit more into this big monster business, and thus we got Rodan. Its success ensured monster and science-fiction mania would continue into the crazy ‘60s, when Japan found a unique voice in what had been a specifically American genre during the previous ten years.

Rodan still owes a great deal to the American model of monster movie; it wasn’t until Mothra in 1960 that the Japanese got really, uh, Japanese, with their monsters. But Rodan is an awesome rendition of the American model nonetheless, and one of director Ishiro Honda’s finest films.

Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera (1962)

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Michael Gough, Thorley Walters

After Hammer had a hit with their technicolor shocker The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, they declared open season on the classic monsters from the Universal Studios stable of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man all lined up for the Hammer Horror florid and colorful British treatment, usually under the auspices of director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. It was inevitable that the studio tackle the Phantom of the Opera, the first Universal Studios monster success.

What’s strange is how unknown the Hammer Phantom of the Opera remains today. Their versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, and the Werewolf are still visible classics, but The Phantom of the Opera, even with Fisher at the helm, was poorly received in its time and maintains a lower profile than other cinematic adaptations of the story of the tortured and murderous composer beneath the opera house.

Concerning Halloween Costumes

I have a complex philosophy about Halloween costumes and what they mean to me. Perhaps “complex” is too erudite a word; I principally mean that I think a lot about why I enjoy wearing Halloween costumes, which types I tend to gravitate toward, the many different “genres” of costumes, and why I spend so much time in advance planning out what I want to dress as for one or two parties in late October.

As a child, I went as a hodgepodge of things, most of them ghoulish monsters since that was what I was into at the time; I adored the Universal Monster films, the classic old-time frights. I was Dracula one year, fifth grade I believe it was, and had an awesome makeup kit to give me pallor and sunken cheekbones (but I still had the requisite cheap plastic teeth and the cape that looked like it was made from a shower curtain). The first costume I remember wearing was a simple ghost outfit, a sheet with holes. Thinking about that one, I’m always reminded of Charlie Brown in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown with his sheet filled with random holes because he “had a little trouble with the scissors.” Poor guy also took home a bag full of rocks at the end of the night. Another Halloween I went as a generic devil—but I had a lot of fun with it.

My adult costumes are character-based. And for the last four years, they have all been Batman characters: The Scarecrow, The Penguin, Batman, and now The Riddler.

The character-based costume is my favorite because Halloween represents more to me than simply wearing a costume at a party. I’ve already talked about my love of the Gothic atmosphere of the season, how I drink in that luscious darkness. As far as the costume part of the holiday goes, I like to not only dress a part, I want to play a part. I wish to disappear and for a short time step away from myself. For a few nights of the year, I have an excuse to banish “Ryan Harvey” and turn into another, very odd person by taking on their accouterments. Not only that, but I have the company of many others doing the same thing.

Most people don’t really play their parts (that’s hard if they’ve come in a “pun” costume or as a funny inanimate object like an ATM), but I do. I’m not an actor, but for a Halloween party I stay in character. Here’s a chance to let loose my inner nut and eccentric, and people actually enjoy it instead of wonder when the man in white with the strait-jacket will arrive. I imagine this is the charge that professional actors get from playing roles. I could never do this like an actor does it, for a living, but for a few nights a year it does wonders for my mind.

This I year I step into the halls of Halloween celebrations dressed as the classic comic book villain The Riddler. I’ve settled on how I am going to interpret his character. I will mix some of the Frank Gorshin mania from the ‘60s Batman TV show, minus his impossible-to-duplicate giggle, with the smoother computer genius of Batman: The Animated Series voiced by John Glover. I have riddles filled-out on cards to present to people, but I have also memorized many of them so that instead of greeting other partiers with the same “Hey, what’s up? Nice costume,” I will immediately toss a riddle at them.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe way I comprehend The Riddler is as a man who is so brilliant that his brilliance has turned into a handicap. The Riddler is smarter than just about eveybody in Gotham City, and when he commits his crimes to show his genius, he must prove that genius by throwing down brain-puzzles to stump and frustrate the people pursuing him. It isn’t merely an obsessive-compulsive disorder to spoil his own plans, telling Batman where to find him and so on. It’s that The Riddler needs to make crime into a game that displays his intelligence, his mind that jumps and moves about so fast that it actually astonishes him. It’s no fun to commit a standard crime when you’re that smart, it’s not a challenge. But turn it into a playful mind-bender, and you show for certain your superiority to your victims and your pursuers—and you have a great time doing it.

The flaw in this is over-confidence; The Riddler cannot honestly see anyone who could follow his mind and work through his brain-teasing deceptions. Wrapped up in his own intellectual process, The Riddler misses the brute force solutions that defeat him.

This sounds like an awfully complex background to take into a simple Halloween party, but this is what I’ll keep in my head as I prowl around the masquerad, dancing and socializing with riddles at the ready. The Riddler of the comics books makes it all a game so he can laugh at the simpletons of Gotham and get rich in the process—even stumping the Bat. It will be intriguing to try to be in his head (and his clothes) for a few hours. I’m nowhere near as smart as The Riddler, but I’ve got crib notes with all my riddles to help me keep up.

What has been around for millions of years, but is only ever a month old?

“The Moon.”

Now, try to catch me, Bat-fool! (Cue insane Gorshin-giggle.)

22 October 2008

Book Review: The Lost Valley and Other Stories

The Lost Valley and Other Stories (1910)
By Algernon Blackwood

Most readers wander across the supernatural stories of Algernon Blackwood in anthologies of ghost stories or in “Best of” collections like Best Ghost Stories (the first Blackwood book I ever read after I stumbled across it in the alternative bookstore Midnight Special in Santa Monica—sadly no longer in existence) and Penguin’s Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Tales. But small presses have brought out editions of some of Blackwood’s original collections as they were first published. The Complete John Silence Stories contains the full text of John Silence—Physician Extraordinary (1908), and I’ve also purchased copies of Incredible Adventures (1914) and the subject of this entry, The Lost Valley and Other Stories (1910).

I’ll eventually review Incredible Adventures, Blackwood’s most praised work. But because it’s closer to transcendental fantasy than horror, it will fit better with November or December than October. We have “The Wendigo” to keep us warm for Halloween.

21 October 2008

Movie Review: War of the Gargantuas

It took long enough, but DVD companies have at last started to serve fans of live-action Japanese special effects movies—specifically giant monster movies—by releasing the classics in widescreen subtitled versions, often with extras. The dubbed versions are usually available on the same disc, but I have no problem with this since many children watch these films and they would never get through a subtitled version. Kids need to get hooked on Godzilla at a young age with the easy to understand dubbed versions, and when they’re old enough they’ll appreciate having the subtitled version available so they can graduate to adult fan-hood.

Classic Media has spearheaded the monster revival with their superior DVD releases. They recently produced a two-disc double feature of two giant monster classics from director Ishiro Honda: Rodan and War of the Gargantuas. Both films deserve extensive treatment, so I’ll tackle them in separate posts.

First up, a pair of smelly hairy giant gorillas go at it over whether humans are tasty or not in . . .

War of the Gargantuas (1966)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Starring Russ Tamblyn, Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Jun Tazaki

I adored giant monster films from a young age, so I had encountered War of the Gargantuas more than once on a Saturday afternoon or during a Thanksgiving Day Monster Marathon. At the time I didn’t care much for it; I preferred saurian, non-humanoid monsters like Godzilla and Gamera, and these shaggy ogres didn’t capture my interest. Plus, I found some of its scenes a touch too scary, something I wasn’t used to in Japanese monster movies. The green gargantua chewing up a woman and then spitting out the inedible parts really unnerved me as a young ‘un. Now I wonder how nimble the gargantua’s teeth must need to be to pull off a stunt like that. He could probably give Teller good competition with his swallowing-and-linking-pins trick.

20 October 2008

It all converges!

The Halloween parties close in…

NaNoWriMo’s kick-off party happens this weekend…

The first day of novel-writing starts in less than twelve days…

The election is less than three weeks away…

Exciting times we live in.

So, I give you my current inspiration:
Question: What comes once in a minute, twice in a moment, but never in a thousand years?

Answer: The letter “M.”

18 October 2008

Movie review: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman is a perfect Halloween superhero: his crime-fighting theme, the backdrop of Gotham city’s eternal night, the overtones of the Gothic courtesy of the character’s debt to The Shadow, and a grotesque gallery of villains add up to a hero at home in October’s dry winds. The Scarecrow is perhaps the perfect Halloween villain, and his episode in the graphic novel Haunted Knight is essential comic book reading for the season. Of course, there’s also The Long Halloween, my favorite graphic novel title ever. A Long Halloween sounds like a pleasant year to me.

So amidst watching horror films for October, I decided to sneak in some Batman. For your reviewing pleasure, I have turned from the live-action movies and toward the animated franchise and a film that hasn’t gotten much close examination in the recent Bat-mania brought about by the success of The Dark Knight.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm. Featuring the voices of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Dana Delany, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Abe Vigoda, Stacy Keach Jr., Hart Bochner, Dick Miller

To date, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the only film from the DC Animated Universe (DCAU in fan abbreviation) to have reached theaters. Warner Bros. initially planned to release an animated Batman film from the team responsible for the critically lauded Batman: The Animated Series in the years between the live-action films. It would help keep the brand visible and must have seemed like an excellent idea at the time. But Mask of the Phantasm arrived in theaters in December 1993 without much fanfare or marketing support, and so sank out of sight fast. The remaining feature films in the DCAU have gone direct-to-video.

It’s unfortunate that Mask of the Phantasm’s initial failure kept us from seeing further big-screen adventures, but at least we have the film itself, which is superior to the two Schumacher live-action films that followed it, and it now has a strong fan-following.

Bat-fandom in general has a high opinion of Mask of the Phantasm, but I’ll get this in the open right away: I don’t fully agree. I think it ranks below the best episodes of the animated series of which it’s an extension, and is inferior to later DCAU original animated videos like Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker and Superman: Doomsday.

Nonetheless, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a strong piece of work from the people who made the animated series such a success, and the big-screen opportunities allow them some stunning visuals—the animated Batman has never looked more ideally noir and retro-forties—as well as a chance to include more violence disallowed by daytime TV standards. The villains can actually kill people!

The events of Mask of the Phantasm combines a present-day tale of a new vigilante terrorizing Gotham’s underworld with a flashback story inspired by Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: Year One. The production team clearly wanted to do a Batman origin story, and found a way to work past and present together into a single story that involves a tragic romance for Bruce Wayne and role for Batman’s #1 adversary, the Joker. Some parts of Batman: Year One appear almost unchanged: Bruce Wayne’s first outing as a vigilante in a simple ski-mask, and a massive chase between Batman and the Gotham PD that concludes in a construction site.

The movie opens awesomely with a CGI pass through Gotham skyscrapers and a thundering choral rendition of Shirley Walker’s theme from the animated series. This leads into Batman busting in on Mobster Chuckie Sol’s operation and the first appearance of the mysterious Phantasm. The Phantasm is a breathtaking grim-reaper visage and one of best original contributions to the Batman mythos to come out of the DCAU.

These opening few minutes are enough to show the superb the animation and art direction. This is some of the best work to come from the Batman: The Animated Series team. The airbrushed-on-black look of the TV series appears even more impressive on the larger canvas of film. Although Mask of the Phantasm was done on a smaller budget than a major Disney picture, it still has an expansive look and creatively staged sequences that compensate for this limitation.

The overseas studios that handled the animation chores, Dong Yang Animation and Spectrum Animation Studios, do excellent work to match the best episodes in the series. There are numerous superb action scenes and layers upon layers of atmosphere. The scene in the graveyard, where another gangster meets his fate at the Phantasm’s hands (and what an awesome scene for Halloween!), is one of many impressive moments. The finale in the ruins of a Hugo Gernsbeck-esque futuristic exposition would have made an eye-popping scene in a live-action film. The filmmakers even toss in an homage to King Kong and kaiju films with Batman battling the Joker on a miniature of Gotham City and batting away killer toy planes.

The story develops that the murderous Phantasm is knocking off members of aging mobster Salvatore Velestra’s organization. Crusading Councilman Arthur Reeves blames Batman for the killings and forms a task force to take him out. Bruce Wayne’s personal life turns complicated when an old love, Andrea Beaumont, returns to Gotham, and his investigations as Batman turn up a link between Velestra and Andrea’s wealthy father. But Batman will soon have more to worry about than the Phantasm, the aggressive police, and the troubling reappearance of a lost love: a panicked Velestra has called on an unorthodox source of help against the attacks on his organization: the Joker.

Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds in flashbacks: Bruce starts to discover his crime-fighting persona, meets Andrea and almost gives up his promise to his parents to battle injustice so he can marry her, only to lose her because of her father’s enigmatic connections to organized crime. And hey look, there’s a mob enforcer who looks sort of like the Joker!

Like many classic Batman stories, The Mask of the Phantasm is a tragedy. The hero may vanquish the villains, but at a great cost. Much is lost, and deep scars remains. The film leaves a deep residue of sorrow, which is what great Batman stories often do.

So what holds me back from giving Mask of the Phantasm the fandom full big thumbs-up? The mix I mentioned above of the past and present, the Phantasm plot-meets-Year One-meets-romance-meets-Joker, isn’t always a comfortable one. The flashbacks to Wayne’s beginnings as the Bat start too early and keep the Phantasm plot from getting properly revved up. Andrea is one of the better of Wayne’s romances, but we should get to know her more in the present before the past gets launched at us. Except for the emotional scene of Wayne begging the tombstone of his parents to release him from his pledge to fight crime so he can be with Andrea, the flashbacks are the weakest scenes in the movie. They continually unbalance the pacing whenever they cut in. The past in the film works best when it’s confronted in the present, such as Alfred’s final speech to Bruce about vengeance and how it “blackens the soul.”

The result of these intervening multiple layers is a great story with a backdrop that keeps falling down in front of the action. The structural problems keep a good movie from turning into a great one.

Also, and to some this is a minor quibble, the Phantasm’s equipment and abilities never receive a logical explanation. And the song performed by Tia Carrere over the end titles is pretty cheesy.

Aside from the solo DVD of the movie available, Warner Bros. has also packaged it in a double-feature DVD with Batman and Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero. Don’t buy this one, since Mask of the Phantasm is only available in a cropped pan-and-scan version. Stick with the Phantasm only disc, where at least you have the choice of seeing it in the original aspect ratio and see the animators take advantage of the full canvas.

Couldn’t resist! Here’s more.

Photoshop makes this all a lot more entertaining.
Question: Three men are in a boat with four cigarettes and no matches. How do they manage to smoke?

Answer: They threw one cigarette overboard and made the boat a cigarette lighter.

That’s an an actual riddle from the first episode of the 1960s Batman TV show.

Here it is: The Riddler

The Halloween costume is done, and here is the final result.
Here is one with a bit of a comic book effect (thanks Photo Booth!):
Big thanks to my mother, who did the necessary sewing to get all the purple question marks onto the jacket without damaging the coat. It’s an awesome coat, question marks or no, so I want it preserved.

17 October 2008

Movie Review: Night of the Demon (a.k.a. Curse of the Demon)

Night of the Demon (1957)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis.

I’ve written recently about The Omenspecifically, its soundtrack—so I feel I should dwell on another one of my “Five Favorite Halloween Horror Films.” I’ve selected the one least familiar to general moviegoers, even though it’s an inarguable horror classic. However, it doesn’t feature Dracula or the Frankenstein Monster, nor has it gotten re-made in recent years, so I believe it needs a bit more examination than the other four on my list. There honestly isn’t any point in telling people how great Bride of Frankenstein is. On the other hand, rescuing The Haunting’s memory from the vomitous 1999 re-make might be worth my while one day, but that would require going back and watching the re-make again to make the comparisons. I am not doing that.
 (Update: I went and reviewed the film anyway, but I safely ignored the re-make, and my sanity remained intact.)

Anyway, on with our tale of runes and sorcerers and a veddy cool Ken Adam monster.

15 October 2008

Neal Hefti, Basie composer and arranger, dies

Neal Hefti, prominent composer and arranger, has died suddenly at age 85—most probably from a stroke, according to his son.

Hefti is most famous with the public for the composition of the insanely catchy theme to the 1960s Batman TV show.

Now, you would think that I, huge fan of both Batman in general and the old TV show specifically, would now go on and on about that one theme.

But you would be wrong.

I am instead going to talk about another love of mine: swing dancing.

Because Neal Hefti has another great musical legacy as the composer and arranger of Count Basie's most successful album, the 1957 The Atomic Mr. Basie (also called The Atomic Basie, E=MC2, The Atomic Album, or “The one with the mushroom cloud on it”). This is one of the great jazz albums of its decade, and it catapulted the Basie Orchestra back into prominence with the line-up that would be known as the “Second/New Testament” band. (The “Old Testament” band is the 1930s line-up that included Lester Young, and which, for my money, is the greatest swing band in history.)

The smooth but hard swinging sound that Hefti provided Basie’s orchestra would define the band for the remainder of the Count’s life. It’s the quintessence of “cool,” the height of “hip.” I don’t revere this style as much as the easier and blusier swing sound of the Old Testament band, but The Atomic Mr. Basie is a classic and the best post-war work the Count put out.

The three cuts off the all-instrumental album that have become essential parts of the Basie canon are “Li’l Darling,” “Teddy the Toad,” and “Splanky.” “Li’l Darling” is a gorgeous ballad to sip martinis by, and “Teddy the Toad” lays down a heavy swing that makes it the #1 lindy-hopping piece off the album—I’ve danced to it many times. But “Splanky” may be the definitive cut, playful and casual but displaying the band’s tremendous power. Hefti served up just what the Count needed at the time, and the mix of talents produced a timeless album.

Yes, Hefti composed the Batman Theme. It’s a great piece from a great TV show. All the official media obituaries will make sure you know this.

But right now, it’s The Atomic Mr. Basie I’m playing on my iPod in his honor.

Put on your Halloween shorts

Horror novels are great during the Halloween season, but short stories and novellas are even better. They elicit the feeling of the campside tale or the hearthside gather-round.

And so, I present to you my favorite short stories and novellas for Halloween reading:
Some explanations and excuses:

You could term “The Turn of the Screw” a short novel, in which case I would have to write it in italics as The Turn of the Screw. But I’m putting it here anyway—to the devil with italics—because you could polish this one off easily in one sitting—and you should. Poe rules apply.

The two Lovecraft stories I picked aren’t at as high a quality as some of his others, and I would rate both “The Colour out of Space” and “At the Mountains of Madness” much higher. However, those two tales seem so essentially science fiction that they aren’t ideal Halloween reads. My Poe picks also come from the gut; I think for pure autumn freakiness, “Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are killer-dillers (if you don’t mind me mixing Poe with swing-dancing lingo), but I don’t like them as much in general as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”

“Pigeons from Hell” nearly scared me into a coma when I first read it during a windstorm in a beach house at night. Perfect atmosphere. It’s my favorite Robert E. Howard story—yes, more than his Conan stories, and that’s saying something for me.

Almost any story in Ray Bradbury’s collection October Country would be a candidate for the list, but “The Scythe” is the one that stands out for me. The same criteria applies to M. R. James’s ghost stories: take your pick, and my pick is “ ‘Oh, Whistle.’ ”

“Dark Melody of Madness” has one of the best ending lines for any Halloween season tale: “Stay close boys. I’m afraid of the dark.”

Memories of a black mass

Halloween has a very specific soundtrack in my apartment. It’s the time of year when the iPod sitting in its dock hooked to my sound system starts playing “Danse Macabre,” “Night on Bald Mountain,” the soundtrack to Psycho, and of course, the score to Halloween. But mostly, it’s the season of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Omen Trilogy” of soundtracks—October perennials since high school.

If any piece of music can be said to have caused an epiphany for me, it’s the score to The Omen (1976). It made me a soundtrack collector and fanatic. By high school I had already made a turn toward film scores; I had zero interest in contemporary popular music, and only a passing interest in some classical music. But I liked John Williams’s epic populist soundtracks to Lucas and Spielberg movies, and grooved with John Barry’s 007 music. I had found some work by Bernard Herrmann via his Ray Harryhausen films. And I had one or two pieces by some fellow named Jerry Goldsmith. I knew enough about Mr. Goldsmith to know that he won an academy award for his score to The Omen. Even though I had never seen the film before, I picked up the album when I saw it in a store. I had no idea my musical life was about to change.

The first time I listened to The Omen soundtrack, it scared the living daylights out of me. This has nothing to do with the religious aspects of the music, since I’m not religious in the slightest. Something about this Latin-chanting chorus and the mix of liturgical with modernist orchestration deeply unnerved me. I had to shut the album off during the third cut, “Killer Storm,” because I suddenly couldn’t take it. That is still one wicked and shivery piece of music.

I’ve never had a piece of music hit me like this, before or since. For some people it’s Mozart, or Hendrix, or Miles Davis… for me it was a Black Mass called “Ave Satani” and the madness and despair that followed it.

When I got back to listening to the rest of the album, I was glued to the chair where I was sitting as if I were watching the most engrossing suspense film ever made. For days afterwards, the themes and the chanting of the chorus with their black mass would not leave my head. When I later saw the film and heard how the music worked with the images, I was even more astonished. (The film remains a personal favorite, and I placed it in my list of Top Five Halloween Films.) But the score had worked its dark magic on me, scared me into shutting it off, before I had even seen a frame of the film. That’s genius.

I emerged from this as 1) a Jerry Goldsmith fan, and 2) a film soundtrack fanatic. Neither obsession has ever left me. I have some hundred and fifty soundtrack albums by Mr. Goldsmith, and nearly a thousand various other scores on CD and LP. The Omen first showed me the incredible possibilities in the dramatic film score and made me a lover of this peculiar and varied musical form. The Omen isn’t my favorite film score of all time—that honor belongs to another Goldsmith score, Chinatown—but it is the one that influenced me the most.

During Halloween season, The Omen and Goldsmith’s scores to the two sequels, Damien: Omen II (1978) and The Final Conflict (1981) rule my roost. The sequel scores use the choral ideas from the first film, but are very different in style, particularly The Final Conflict, which is operatic, stately, and occasionally emotionally uplifting. The middle film score sits between the medieval solemnity of the first and the classicism of the third with an approach that is slick, fast, and almost jazzy. It contains one of Goldsmith’s most sustained pieces of tension music, “Runaway Train.”

All three scores were later re-issued on CD in expanded editions, which I snapped up immediately. I still have my old CDs as well, since they had gone through so many years with me already.

Jerry Goldsmith died in 2004, but I was fortunate and honored to have met him in person twice. He was a generous and modest-seeming man, honestly surprised that he had fans like me running around collecting his albums (“Do you really listen to all of them?” he asked me incredulously). He was full of wonderful stories about his long career, and I listened to him speak about them for six hours at a special seminar. The second time I met him, during the scoring sessions to Deep Rising that the film editor had invited me to, Goldsmith signed my albums of The Omen and Chinatown, and they remain two of my most treasured items.

14 October 2008

I still hope for Punishment

I’m hoping for a good Punisher film when Punisher: War Zone comes out in December, and perhaps this isn’t as delusional as it sounds. I am one of the few comic-book-familiar folks out here who actually enjoyed the 2004 Punisher starring Thomas Jane. When I first saw it, I didn’t think it was much of anything, but when I later bought a DVD copy (used) on a whim, I found that the darn thing had really grown on me. It’s hard to explain; to give you some perspective, I feel the same way about the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I showed the movie to my father, who only knows of the Punisher because I dressed as him for Halloween one year, and he unabashedly loved it, which has also altered my perception of it.

So I was excited about a sequel. I wanted Thomas Jane to return, but when I heard that the new film would go the re-boot route with a new cast and director, I felt it was a legitimate way to go. The new director, German martial artist Lexi Alexander, was an intriguing choice—and she clearly loves the material. Classic Punisher villain Jigsaw would be the head heavy. The cast was wonderful: Ray Stevenson, Wayne Knight, Dominic West, Colin Salmon. The future looked bright and bloody.

However, since the beginning of the year, Punisher: War Zone has turned into its own war zone of negative rumors and danger signs and tales of re-cuts and infights and firings. Stories are flying back and forth, rumor meets denial meets rumor meets denial. A writer has his name removed from the film. Opening date gets pushed back. The director has been fired. No, she hasn’t been. The film will get cut to PG-13. No, it will be R. Frank Castle will be digitally replaced with a singing giraffe. No, it will be a swing dancing lemur.

I try to avoid letting Internet rumors affect me—nothing is official until it’s, you know, official. I hope it is all nothing but overactive hype. However, with all this flak flying around, I cannot help but get a touch worried. A commentator at CHUD points out that we have no right to expect a decent Punisher movie. But he also says we can hope for the best, and that is what I am doing. I want this film to work. I like the footage I’ve seen from the trailers, as well as the new minute of carnage on the official website.

Will this be a time when all the negative buzz is only gunsmoke in the wind? I hope so.

Update: Here it is. And here’s what I think.

13 October 2008

Book Review: The Bone Key

The Bone Key
by Sarah Monette (2007)

The Bone Key came to my attention from a recommendation on LibraryThing from another user who noticed my interest in foundational weird fiction. This shows one of the tremendous benefits of cataloging your books in an online community: people know what you will like when they can see the whole range of what you read. Hail LibraryThing!

Author Sarah Monette provides a good encapsulation of her purpose in writing the stories in The Bone Key in her brief introduction:
This book is a series of interconnected short stories, written between 2000 and 2006. Their narrator/protagonist is a museum archivist—neurotic, erudite, insomniac—and he and his world are both homages to and interrogations of the works of M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. They are, in other words, old-fashioned ghost stories with, at times, a modern sensibility shining through them.
I wouldn’t classify Lovecraft’s work as “old-fashioned ghost stories”—not remotely, they shifted the focus of horror into the modern secular era—so perhaps he is the modern sensibility? No, the “interrogation” part is what Monette means by a modern sensibility. By her own admission, she has added a psycho-sexual element to her stories not present in James or Lovecraft (neither of whom took much interest in female characters—or characters, period) and more personal development. Monette does show a keen understanding of Lovecraft’s style and themes, regardless of how she classifies his work, but James does more of the heavy lifting.

Movie Review: She (1935)

She (1935)
Directed by Lansing C. Holden and Irving Pichel. Produced by Merian C. Cooper. Starring Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce.

Any current discussion of the 1935 version of She must start with a discussion of colorization.

The technology of colorizing black and white footage took heavy flack in the 1980s after Ted Turner turned his paint gun on classics and everyone on the planet screamed “foul.” Colorization was then relegated to the more respectful art of restoration. But it has made a comeback recently with “artistic justification colorization,” where a black and white film gets the treatment because an artist connected to it believes that it was the intent to make it color in the first place. Ray Harryhausen, producer and special effects maven on the 1957 monster films 20 Million Miles to Earth, worked to have the film colorized in 2007 because he had originally wanted the film shot in color, but had to give in to budget restrictions. By Harryhausen’s request, the 1935 She has also gotten the colorization treatment from Legend Films for its DVD release. Harryhausen had nothing to do with that movie (he was fifteen when it came out) but wanted it done as a tribute to producer Merian C. Cooper, who directed and produced King Kong. Cooper had also wanted She shot in color, but at the last minute had to switch to black and white.

Movie Review: City of Ember

City of Ember (2008)
Directed by Gil Kenan. Starring Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Toby Jones, Martin Landau

The film adaptation of Jeanne Duprau’s young adult novel slipped almost entirely under my radar until a friend asked me if I wanted to see it on Sunday morning. I did a quick look-up on the movie, saw the words “post-apocalypse young adult adventure,” and said, “Sure.”

There are some great visual pleasures in City of Ember, but mostly disappointments about a steampunk apocalypse adventure that never manages to get its gears greased and moving.

(Note: I have not read the book, so my analysis here can only reflect on what I see on screen.)

Our story opens with the End of the World by Forces Never Made Clear. A cabal of elderly scientists in clean blue lab coats seal the future of humanity into a metal box that will open in two hundred years, when the remainder of the human race will be able to return to the surface after dwelling in the underground city of Ember. In Ember, the survivors will purposely forget about the world they left behind, and the mayor will keep the sacred metal box until it opens. But during the ensuing years, the box and its purpose are lost, and Ember limps on until failing power generators threatens to plunge the subterranean world into permanent darkness. Two adolescents, Lina (Ronan) and Doon (Treadaway) start to search for a way out of the flickering city, but not only is this forbidden, but they also face a corrupt government under the control of a scene-stealing Bill Murray as the mayor.

12 October 2008

Top 5 Halloween movies

The Lightning Bug’s Lair is holding a Halloween Countdown of favorite horror films for the Most Wonderful Time of the Year™. Along with Lightning Bug’s own favorites will appear lists submitted by readers of their Top Five. I’ve sent along my list, but I’ll share it with you people here, ‘cuz shucks, I like you folks:
  1. Dracula/Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958)
  2. The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976)
  3. The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
  4. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
  5. Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
You will immediately glean from this list how I lean with regards to horror films—and Halloween. First, I like Hammer Horror films. Second, I like Universal Classic Monster films. Third, haunted house stories are favorites of mine. Fourth, I’m not much of a fan of gore-filled horror films (with some important exceptions). Yes, The Omen has the legendary decapitation, and Peter Cushing delivers a grisly staking in Dracula, but otherwise this is much more an “atmosphere” and “unseen terror” list. In my Halloween world, atmosphere trumps all.

Something I noticed myself after I compiled the list is that four of these movies are literary adaptations: Dracula from the novel by Bram Stoker (although screenwriter Jimmy Sangster makes some free adaptations, some of which I think improve on Stoker), The Haunting from The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (perhaps my favorite horror novel of all time), Bride of Frankenstein from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (it takes more inspiration from the novel than its predecessor, the 1931 Frankenstein, does), and Night of the Demon from the short story “Casting the Runes” by M. R. James. Only The Omen comes from an original screenplay, written by David Seltzer. My horror movie loves apparently dovetail with my literary ones—not much of a surprise, of course.

I included the director and the year for each movie because I want there to be no confusion: both The Omen and The Haunting have suffered from remakes… dreadful remakes. Fortunately, both remakes have been mostly forgotten, but I just want to make sure there’s no misunderstanding here. I couldn’t bear to think that somewhere, someplace, there might be a person who thinks that I liked the Jan de Bont 1999 evisceration of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

I limited the list to horror films; there are a few non-horror movies that I associate strongly with Halloween, most notable among them Batman Begins, the best Halloween superhero movie ever made. (Although I think The Dark Knight is an even better film, I don’t find it as Halloween-drenched as Begins.) And there’s always Nightmare before Christmas. I’ll probably add Hellboy II: The Golden Army to the list next year.

08 October 2008

Here’s One for M. R. James

M. R. James lags behind in my poll on early horror writers for the moment, although he has more votes than poor Le Fanu and Chambers, who don’t got none. (Chambers I can understand, since he’s the most obscure on the list. But what’s the deal with Le Fanu? Has nobody read “Carmilla”? I must get a post on that while I’m so busy throwing around classic horror authors in season celebration.)

I’m going to throw some business Mr. James’s way for this post, because he deserves it. When we think of the term “ghost story,” what we imagine is an M. R. James tale. He was the pinnacle of the Victorian ghost story, the master at this polite form of horror. The way the mystery community refers to traditional British whodunits as “cozies,” so I think of James’s stories as “cozy horror.”

This isn’t because James’s work lacks unsettling and frightening effects. It has to do with the polite and proper milieu of professors and tea and the ordered English gardens in which they take place, and James’s mannered, leisurely prose given with a pedagogical twist. Furthermore, these stories were hatched for a particular season, Christmas, when they were told next to roaring hearth fires with the smell of plum pudding overwhelming the air.

07 October 2008

Woolrich’s short shorts

Cornell Woolrich was very comfortable with the novella form, as such works as “Speak to Me of Death,” “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes,” and “Jane Brown’s Body” show (and I really must write something about the last one, a neglected piece of supernatural fiction, in a future post). Novellas were highly remunerative for a payment-by-the-word pulp writer.

But often shorter is easier to sell, especially if a magazine editor needs to plug up a word-count hole in the upcoming issue. Woolrich penned a couple of interesting short-shorts coming in at less than 3,000 words. Two in particular always come to my mind: “Waltz,” a narrative experiment, and “Somebody on the Phone,” a familiar Woolrich theme telescoped in intensity.

Most of the plot of “Waltz” is conveyed through a monologue from a debutante at a party waltzing in the arms of Wes, a man she plans to elope with that night. Wes’s side of the conversation remains hidden behind ellipses, giving the effect of listening to one side of a telephone conversation. Through this device, Woolrich paints the action: a police detective is at the party looking for a serial murderer. (“Isn’t it thrilling? Somebody here at this party is a congenital murderer! Somebody right out on this floor dancing like we are this very minute! I wouldn’t want to be in his partner’s shoes….”) The expository spiel from the girl makes its clear who we should think the killer is, and wonder why she is so naïve as not to realize it. But wait… this might not be as simple as we think it is.

Honestly, this story is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Is it a weak, obvious work with a weird ending, or a great piece of misdirection? Maybe it’s both; Woolrich is the sort of writer who can handle both opinions at once.

“Somebody on the Phone” has a poor women tormented by a caller who rings five times, and then hangs up. Her brother, a tough guy without any sense of restraint, thinks a gangster she used to work for is shaking her down, and goes out to set things ‘aright. Poor dope doesn’t realize he’s in a Woolrich tale, and has irony and a cruel universe breathing down his back. The brevity of this work makes the final punch a powerful one. Weird, unexplained, but effective.

06 October 2008

Algernon Blackwood Presents: “Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer”

“Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer” is an unusual entry in the Algernon Blackwood horror story canon. Although originally printed in the same volume as “The Listener” and “The Willows,” “Max Hensig” is not a supernatural horror story at all, but a suspense horror story. It also moves away from the ethereal naturalist themes that form an important part of much of Blackwood’s best work. Instead it dwells in the urban canyons of turn-of-the-century New York, its prison and bars and courthouses, and specifically the lives of hustling newspaper reporters. Blackwood had worked as reporter in NYC for a few years and loathed the experience—he was a man of the wilderness, not the concrete jungle—and here puts to good use his frontline knowledge of the newspaper world of 1907.

(“The Listener” also concerns a writer for a newspaper, but that was incidental to its story of madness and haunting.)

Halloween author poll

In time for Halloween, I’ve put a poll on the top of the blog that will run until the 31st. The question:

Which of these foundational horror/weird authors do you enjoy?

I’ve placed a large selection of late-Victorian/early 20th century writers, going up as late as H. P. Lovecraft, who caps off the period of the “weird” story writer and the eventual transition to the modern school of horror. I debated putting Wilkie Collins on the list, but he’s more suspense and mystery. Lord Dunsany I decided is too strongly fantasy.

You can vote for as many writers as you like, and if there is somebody you think should be on the list who isn’t, vote “Other” and put your choice in the comments.

Update 10/6: Strange, after all this talk of Algernon Blackwood, and I didn't think to put him on the list. Too late now, voting has already started. I guess "Other" is now Blackwood. At the moment, Poe, Stoker, and Lovecraft are tied for first, which makes sense as they are the best known. No love for le Fanu or Chambers yet (honestly, how many people have ever read Chambers, let alone heard of him?)

Update 10/8: Poe pulls ahead of Stoker and Lovecraft, with 58% of the vote. Le Fanu and Chambers still have nothing.

Update 10/29: Two days left, and here are the current standings. Looks like Poe will win. Lovecraft has put up a strong fight.

05 October 2008

“The Listener” by Algernon Blackwood

You can’t have too much Algernon Blackwood in October, I’ve discovered, so upon finishing The Complete John Silence Stories, I decided I had to read a few more of his classics.

Here’s one of his best, “The Listener,” the title story of one his most important collections, the 1907 volume that also includes “The Willows” and “Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer.” My copy is collected in Best Ghost Stories.

“The Listener” follows more traditional ghost story territory than the John Silence stories. It feels like a shivery hearthside story whispered at midnight… only told in exceptional prose and filled with a feverish intensity that Blackwood injected into the best of his pure horror tales.

The story is told in the form of the diary entries of a nameless writer for magazines and newspapers (the autobiographical elements are obvious) who rents a room in an old house in London. The diary entries soon show a deterioration and paranoia about everything in the house; the author tells us he has a history of mental illness in his family, and he has suffered from sleepwalking. But does this account for the strange nightly activities in his house, the sense of someone unseen listening outside his door, whispering strange phrases in his ear while he sleeps, bizarre thoughts recorded into his diary, a maid who refuses to talk about what once happened in the upstairs rooms, the vanishing figure on the staircase with indescribable features, and the slowly increasing sensation of some horrible illness creeping over him?

It’s a cumulative and terrifically creepy piece of work. The question of the narrator’s perception constantly haunts it, making the inconclusive and abrupt ending appropriate.

Blackwood knows how to make a reader uncomfortable:
Slowly, as moonbeams rise over a misty sea in June, the thought is entering my mind that my nerves and somnabulistic dreams do not adequately account for the influence this house exercises upon me. It holds me with a fine invisible net. I cannot escape if I would. It draws me, and it means to keep me.
Other people can have their Texas Chain Saw Massacres and Hostels. This is what I consider scary.

(Actually, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre did terrify me . . . and not in a way I enjoyed.)

John Silence—Physician Extraordinary

The Complete John Silence Stories (1997)
By Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951) is one of the greatest of the authors roaming October Country. He’s often classified as a horror and ghost story writer, but these terms don’t cover the span of his unusual talent. Some of his tales do deal with ghosts, and many are filled with soul-ripping horror. But his supernatural stories sometimes reach into realms of pantheistic wonder (such as “The Man whom the Trees Loved” and “Sand”), and you could hardly use the term “ghost” to describe the fear-inducing powers in “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” his two towering classics. Meanwhile, “Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer” is a horror story with no supernatural elements at all.

To start the Halloween reading season, I’m sitting down with a modern collection of Blackwood’s work, The Complete John Silence Stories. This volume contains the five stories originally published in John Silence—Physician Extraordinary in 1908, plus one additional story from 1917. Although Blackwood had already published some of his best stories by 1908, the success of John Silence made him a bestseller and assured the rest of his career. Now we have to seek his work out in small press editions; how easily our culture forgets some of its best talents.

Titular hero Dr. John Silence is a philanthropist physician who asks for no money for his services, but who prefers cases involving the spirit (although he can’t stand the word “occult”) rather than merely the body. He combines the rationality and calm of the scientist with the paranormal knowledge of a sensitive or psychic. As described in the first story, “A Psychical Invasion”:
. . . the cases that especially appealed to him were of no ordinary kind, but rather of that intangible, elusive, and difficult nature best described as psychical afflictions; and, although he would have been the last person himself to approve of the title, it was beyond question that he was known more or less generally as the “Psychic Doctor.”
The psychic or paranormal detective is a common trope in movies, books, comics, and TV today, but Dr. Silence was one of the first: part Sherlock Holmes, part Abraham van Helsing.

Cornell Woolrich Says “Men Must Die”

In my last post on Cornell Woolrich, I dealt with a mediocre collection of stories that had one masterpiece and some okay-to-awful work as well. I feel like delving into a classic, one that has shown up in many reprints under three different names: “Men Must Die,” “Guillotine,” and “Steps Going Up.” It originally appeared in Black Mask for August 1939 as “Men Must Die,” which I think is the most appropriate and eriee sounding of the titles, so I will stick with that. (“Guillotine” is the most popular reprint title, however.)

Two men have a rendezvous with death on the platform of the Parisian guillotine. Who will arrive first? Will it be Robert Lamont, condemned to death for a murder committed during a burglary, or will it be the public executioner, poisoned by Lamont’s lover Babette in the hope to invoke an old French law that pardons the next man for the chopping block when the executioner dies?

02 October 2008

Got Time for the Stars?

Time for the Stars (1956)By Robert A. Heinlein

I’m approaching the writing of another young adult science-fiction novel next month (for National Novel Writing Month). I’ve written two previous to this, but this marks my first return to genre in a couple of years, as my last two completed novels were YA fantasy and horror respectively. This means that October will be a month when I do some muscle-stretching to get back into the YA SF mindset, and that means reading from some of the past masters of this literary art form. (I’ll read some classic horror and weird tales as well—we live in October Country, after all.)

One of the legends of the YA SF novel (many people would say the legend, although I think Andre Norton gives him real competition for that title) is Robert A. Heinlein. Before writing any YA novel, I like to leap back to the “juveniles” he wrote throughout the 1950s and watch him at work. I don’t pretend to write like Heinlein, and my novels have little in common with his in style, character, or themes (the latter is damned impossible since Heinlein and I stand on opposite ends of the political spectrum) but I always learn from his tone and his respect for his audience of younger readers. Adult Heinlein fans love the juvies as much as his “mature” novels, and that’s a heavy statement considering he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land.

01 October 2008

Piece by piece

Here’s how the costume is looking. I’ve cut out the first five small questions marks, but as you can see I have quite a few more to go. Then I have to worry about the actual application to the suit, tie, and hat. The gloves haven’t arrived yet; that’s the only piece that’s still missing.

The most wonderful time of the year

Welcome to October Country.

This isn’t just a month. It’s a timeless world of fantasy half in warmth, half in chill. October is a state of mind. It’s the greatest, most wonderful time of the year. Don’t give me that Johnny Mathis junk about December. October rules. It’s the month of H. P. Lovercraft, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, John Carpenter, Tim Burton, Batman, Jerry Goldsmith’s score to The Omen, “Danse Macabre,” strange late-night masquerades, the early setting sun, the golden leaves in the night wind, the crisp sound of the slowly dying year.

October is King. Let it into your heart all year round.

(Thank you to Ray Bradbury for the term October Country)