Book Review: Respectable Horror

Book Review: Respectable Horror by K.A. Laity

Horror is a wide-ranging genre, which can be tailored to a variety of tastes.  Some folks prefer their scary fiction with a maximum of gushing blood and sharp objects being plunged into soft flesh; others like a more genteel approach that emphasizes the subtle wrongnesses and growing atmospheric dread that comes before the end.  This collection is geared towards the latter audience, with one of the inspirations being the work of M.R. James.

Respectable Horror

There are seventeen stories in all, starting with “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” by Ian Burdon.  The title character went missing in a remote section of British coastline seven years ago.  He’s been declared dead, and a relative is looking through his estate and discovers that Mr. Moorehouse was searching for traces of a buried village on a beach mentioned in an old text.  He decides to honor the man by visiting the same beaches.

This is a thoroughly modern story with Facebook ™ and SIM cards, but ancient evil has adapted to the new technology.

The final story, “The Astartic Arcanum” by Carol Borden, is more of a period piece.  A Cthulhu Mythos tale, it pits poet Nita Sloan against a cabal of wealthy old men in Detroit who want to change the world.  It would appear that her latest work might be the only thing that can stop them–provided they don’t manage to sacrifice her to their dark god first!

Some other standouts include: “The Feet on the Roof” by Anjana Basu.  Set in 1960s India, there is culture clash between a wealthy widow and her daughter.  The daughter just up and vanishes one day, but then mysterious footprints begin to appear where no footprints should be.  It’s nice to see a horror story set in India that is by someone who actually comes from there.

“Miss Metcalfe” by Ivan Kershner is a Bradburyesque story about a substitute teacher.  It is the day before Halloween, and there’s a new substitute teacher, with a radically different lesson plan.  It involves bats.  Nicely spooky, and dances right up to but not past the line.  Read it to your kids.

“The Well Wisher” by Matthew Pegg concerns a series of poison pen letters.  One target of the letters has already been driven to suicide.  A governess may be able to unravel the mystery of the “Well Wisher”, but can she do so without revealing her own dark secrets?  Innovative, but also comfortably period.

My least favorite story was “Recovery” by H.V. Chao.  An author with writer’s block has moved to a small French village in the hopes it will help.  It hasn’t, but he’s enjoying listening to the guest next door speak to a lover who never answers.  The story never reaches spooky, just barely making it to odd.

Most of the other stories are decent to quite good; this would make a fine Halloween present for a sweetheart or other book  lover.

Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955

Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955 edited by Leo Margulies

Fantastic Universe was a digest-sized science fiction and fantasy magazine that ran from 1953 to 1960, originally coming out from King-Size Publications.  Its quality is considered to have fallen off after 1956, with lesser stories and more emphasis on pseudo-science articles, but this particular issue is from the “good” period.

Fantastic Universe October 1955

We open with a brief essay by Frank Belnap Long, inspired by the Kelly Freas cover and talking about the mythic figure of the Horned Man.  None of the other stories are related to the cover.

“Star-flight” by Sam Merwin Jr. concerns a young woman named Francesa Hawley-Bey, a student at a Martian university.  She’s in her early twenties, but has the physical development of a nine-year-old.  She learns that she is the product of a centuries-long breeding experiment to create near-immortality.  Why, you ask?  Well, it turns out that there’s no such thing as faster than light travel.  Humanity can build ships now that get really close to light speed (something that’s been kept from the general public), but it will still take immense amounts of time to reach the stars.

The scientist who’s been working on these new ships is being hunted because he doesn’t want to give one planet (Earth in this case) a monopoly, as their government wants to use the new technology merely to strip-mine the rest of the solar system.  He, it turns out, is secretly the only other immortal and has been waiting thousands of years for a co-pilot so he can get back to galactic civilization.

The general skeeviness of Fran having her entire life manipulated so that humanity can eventually go to the stars is overwhelmed by the particular skeeviness of the romance subplot between her (remember, physically nine) and her thirty-something college dean.  In fairness to the dean, there are hints he might have been brainwashed into this, but eww.  Also note, romance only–this isn’t that kind of story.

“The Nostopath” by Bryce Walton is about a man named Barton who is all too happy to be assigned to a remote one-man watch station during war with aliens.  He didn’t like it much on Earth, with all those people, and his annoying family.  At first, he greatly enjoys the solitude.  After some months, however, he starts craving some company, and sends a message off to HQ with suggestions.

Headquarters think that Barton’s ideas are jolly good, and soon, a small, carefully selected group of people joins Barton on the asteroid station.  This includes Barton’s wife and child, who have learned from his long absence to really appreciate him.  They all get along swimmingly, and Barton’s World is a model community.

Which is great, until the war is over, and the military wants Barton to come back to Earth.  And for some reason, the crew of the pickup ship doesn’t have orders to let anyone come with him.  Chilling ending as we learn what’s really going on.

“An Apartment for Rent” by Ruth Sterling focuses on the title apartment, which is quite nice.  However, since the sudden death of the long-time inhabitants, the rental office has been unable to find anyone who will stay in it for more than a month, despite the housing shortage.  The rental manager thinks the new couple he’s meeting might just be the ones who will fit the apartment.  They do seem rather taken with it…and might be staying forever.  It seems the housing shortage is worse than you might have thought.  Slight but amusing.

“Rafferty’s Reasons” by Frederik Pohl takes place in a dystopian future which has achieved full employment by banning most technology.  Except for teaching machines that will beam necessary job skills into your head.  Rafferty is a bookkeeper who used to be an artist (art was declared “not a real job”) and hates his boss, Girty, who is high up in the political structure of the New Way.  He’s reached the breaking point, and is determined to strike back any way he can.  Downer ending.

Girty is a thoroughly hateable character, with a combination of “bad boss” and “bad conservative” personality traits that make Rafferty’s reasons understandable.

“Hawks Over Shem” by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp is the centerpiece of the issue.  It’s a rewritten version of Mr. Howard’s story “Hawks Over Egypt” that Mr. de Camp translated into the Hyborian Age setting so he could make Conan the Cimmerian the star.

Asgalun is ruled by a king who is, well, nuts.  The main thing protecting him from being overthrown is his army, but his three main generals are feuding with each other and jockeying for power.  One of the generals, Othbaal, has a checkered path in which he sold out his own mercenaries for a massacre.

The sole survivor of that massacre was Conan the Cimmerian.  He’s finally made it to Asgalun to seek vengeance.  But as fate would have it, first Conan accidentally gets involved with an assassination attempt on a man who turns out to be Mazdak, one of the other generals.  Conan would not have interfered, but the assassins decided they didn’t want any witnesses, and our barbarian protagonist isn’t just going to lie down and die.

Mazdak is grateful to Conan, and Othbaal dying fits into his own plans.  So the pair teams up to infiltrate Othbaal’s palace so that Conan can have his revenge.  Othbaal’s concubine Rufia wisely runs away as her unwanted master is disposed of.  Unfortunately for her, it’s currently illegal for women to be out in the street at night, and she runs into King Akhirom in disguise.

As it happens, fleeing murderous barbarians is not a defense under the law, and so Rufia is about to be executed.  Then she gets a brilliant idea, playing into Akhirom’s delusions of grandeur, and getting him to declare himself a god (and herself his first worshiper.)  That saves her neck for the nonce, but now God-King Akhirom is determined to push the new religion on the entire city.

Chaos ensues, and Conan is recognized as Amra, the famous pirate with a reward on his head!  How will he escape a city gone mad?

Note: child sacrifice and implicit rape are part of the story.

This story has been reprinted several times as part of Conan collections, so should be relatively easy to track down.

“Pink Fluff” by Craig Rice is set in an old house that an architect and his family have recently moved into.  There’s currently some amount of marital discord, not made any easier by the appearance of the title substance, which seems to have no visible source, and vanishes just as mysteriously when you aren’t looking.  And it’s getting thicker….

It is painfully obvious to say that this is a “fluff” story, but yes.  It is.

“Run Around the Moon” by Matt Carter takes place in small-town Minnesota.  An astronaut who accomplished many great feats of exploration is retiring to his family farm.  A humble man and solitary by nature, he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet.  But Lars Hendricssen hasn’t counted on just how famous he’s become.

Lars is the biggest thing to come out of that little town, and they want to exploit it to the hilt.  Tourists and sightseers, professors and legislators, all want a piece of Lars’ time and personal space.  Plus, there’s space-happy kids trampling all over his flowerbeds and being loud and enthusiastic all day.

Fortunately, one of Lars’ old crewmembers comes for a visit, and he’s got an idea for a project to keep the kids busy for a good long time.

I’m a sucker for Minnesota-set stories, and I like the humor in this one.

“Universe in Books” by Hans Stefan Santesson is his first review column for FU.  He would later become editor of the magazine.  He likes the more intellectual sort of science fiction, rather than the space opera whiz-bang stuff.

“You Created Us” by Tom Godwin is about a secret community of atomic mutants created by the tests in the Nevada desert in the late Forties/early Fifties.  The protagonist has a metal plate in his head, and this allows him to realize that the lizard people are there, despite their mental powers.  Perhaps he should not have gone into their lair alone.

This is the sort of thing that might have been turned into an Outer Limits story back in the day.  It’s very much a product of the fear of nuclear war.

A different sort of doomsday scenario is seen in the final story, “Weather Prediction” by Evelyn E. Smith.  George is terrible at remembering numbers, particularly telephone numbers.  So when he claims to have called the weather line and been told that rain is coming, his wife Elinor and her friends laugh.  It’s going to be warm and clear!  Until it isn’t.  And then George tells them the rest of the prediction…but who did he actually call?

Some sticklers for religious dogma might object to the ending.

An interesting issue, but a couple of the stories leave a bad taste in my mouth.

 

Magazine Review: Thrilling Mystery March 1936

Magazine Review: Thrilling Mystery March 1936 by various

Thrilling Mystery was a pulp horror magazine created by Thrilling Publications; I’ve been unable to find publication history details in a quick search.  It specialized in “weird menace” tales, which had supernatural trappings but were ultimately revealed as having non-supernatural (but not necessarily plausible) explanations.  It did not, however, stick entirely to such stories.  This issue was reprinted by Adventure House, so let’s see what’s inside.

Thrilling Mystery March 1936

“The Twisted Men” by Hugh B. Cave starts us off with the tale of a young couple who’ve come to the wife’s isolated New England hometown to purchase a summer home.  Peter and Jo Smith (names changed to protect the innocent) soon discover that some force is taking healthy, sane men, and turning them into twisted, mentally deficient monsters that soon die as their bodies are no longer able to support life.

The explanation is allegedly scientific, but the near-instantaneous transformation of the victims (always done while they are off-page for a few minutes) is highly implausible to say the least.  Some great atmosphere, though.  (Also a completely unnecessary mention of Jo being naked at one point for the “spicy” factor.)

“Cold Arms of the Demon” by Jackson Cole is the non-“weird menace” story in this issue.  There’s something in the lake that likes to drown young women, and staying out of the lake is not a defense.  Good thing there’s a ghost writer in the area!

“Black Moonlight” by G.T. Fleming-Roberts is set in an isolated mountain community, probably in Appalachia.  Despite the best efforts of pretty schoolmarm Helen Dahl, the benighted locals have fallen into the clutches of a doomsday cult that promises the end of the world tonight when the moon is destroyed.   And given that frozen corpses are showing up in the middle of summer in a town with no electricity, the cult just might be on to something.

Good thing Helen’s fiance Larry Brit and town doctor Kayne are not so superstitious!  The story hinges on the notion that the ignorant rural folk don’t understand the concept of an eclipse and wouldn’t have noticed it coming in the Farmer’s Almanac.

“The Howling Head” by Beatrice Morton concerns anthropologist Gregg Hartnett coming across a woman’s head howling in the middle of nowhere.  This proves to be a trap by cannibals.  Period racism and the concept of Social Darwinist atavism (sudden resurgence of ancestral traits, particularly among non-white people) make this an uncomfortable read.

“Vengeance of the Snake-God” by James Duncan stars reporter Gary North, who is engaged to Marion Cravath, daughter of archaeologist Hugh Cravath.  They’ve come to Mr. Cravath’s isolated mansion to gain his blessing on their relationship.  That plotline is derailed when the pair stumble across a corpse in the driveway.  It seems Mr. Cravath raided the tomb of Cla-Mir, high priest of the Egyptian snake god Musartis, and brought the fabulous jewels within back to the States.

There is supposedly a curse on the jewels, and this is the second person to die horribly in a similar manner.  Mr. Cravath had called in detective Paul Medal to protect him, but that worthy admits he’s baffled.  The phone lines have been cut, the vehicles rendered inoperative, and the house’s occupants are dying one by one.  Musartis strikes!

Period racism and ableism, though this time misguided.  The sinister Egyptian little person is a red herring.

“Spider’s Lair” by C.K.M. Scanlon initially looks like a love triangle story.  Jeff is a bank cashier who is in love with Nancy Shelby.  She’s currently dating Clinton Banning, a slick fellow who was recently raised to vice-president by the bank president, Harmon Tabor.  Jeff has been suspicious of Banning for a while, as his work hardly seems of the quality to deserve such a promotion.  The detective agency Jeff hired to look into Banning’s background has discovered a wife that Banning never divorced (and has never mentioned to Nancy.)

Nancy’s weak-willed little  brother Paul Shelby asks Jeff to come along on a triple date to Spider Island that Banning is organizing.  Paul will be bringing along his current squeeze, Dolly Pollard, and there’s a third woman coming along for Jeff, a beautiful but mysterious lady named Rose Larue.  Jeff decides this outing will be the perfect chance to get Banning alone and confront him with Jeff’s knowledge of the abandoned wife.

Spider Island has a sinister reputation, but that might just be because of all the spiders.  Or that it was the lair of pirate Spider Murgler.  Or it might be because of the actual point of the expedition, which is far more lethal than Jeff ever expected.  A nifty if highly implausible murder method is involved.  And maybe a bit more love triangle.  Content warning: torture.

“Blood of Gold” by Wayne Rogers (no relation) has seven young people from the wealthier classes and their chauffeur going on a treasure hunt out in Colorado, based on a map found in one’s father’s trunk.  Most of them will not be making it out alive.  Has some good twists, but again the science explanation for what’s going on is highly implausible.  This is the closest story to the cover illustration, but not quite right.

“The Man Who Died Twice” by Bret Altsheler concerns an attempt to bring a man back from the dead who should have remained a corpse.  Once again, dubious science.  The intro tells us the author also wrote “The Gods Laugh at the Red Maggots” which is a far more intriguing title.

The magazine ends with the “Horror-Scope” column by “Chakra.”   The main feature is retellings of various real-life serial killer cases.  Then there are questions from readers, one on ghosts and the other two on torture.  One of these may be useful to writers looking for authenticity in 1930s gangster stories.

The Adventure House reprint includes the original ads and illustrations.  A good selection of the “weird menace” subgenre, but be warned that in every tale, the role of the main woman is to be rescued by the hero.

 

 

Magazine Review: Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944

Magazine Review: Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944 edited by Mary Gnaedinger

Famous Fantastic Mysteries ran from 1939 to 1953 as primarily a reprint magazine.  It was originally published by the Munsey Company to feature the many speculative fiction stories they’d published over the years in their non-specialist magazines like Argosy, to cash in on the now thriving SF magazine market.  They’d had many fine stories over the years, such as A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, and had new art commissioned for the stories from excellent artists, especially Virgil Finlay.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries March 1944

At the end of 1942, Munsey sold the magazine to Popular Publications, which changed the reprint policy to only stories that had not appeared in magazines before.  They also switched the magazine to a quarterly schedule for the duration of the war.  So the March 1944 issue was still early in their new policy, and the letters column reflects this, with several readers still arguing “no magazine stories” was a bad idea.

Back before internet archives, interlibrary loan, or even “Best of the Year” collections, tracking down a particular half-remembered story was an exercise in frustration, so this reprint magazine was a godsend and sold well.

This issue has only two long stories (short novels), but they’re both indeed famous.  Cover honors go to G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.”

Syme is a philosophical policeman, part of a secret unit of Scotland Yard.  As ordinary police officers deal with ordinary crime, a philosophical policeman deals with philosophical crimes that threaten to corrupt or destroy society.  After a debate on what constitutes true poetry with a man named Gregory, Syme finds himself in a position to infiltrate the controlling council of Europe’s anarchist conspiracy.  But has he bitten off more than he can chew, and who or what exactly is the remarkable Mr. Sunday?

As the subtitle suggests, the story runs on dream logic, and has many nightmarish qualities.  The pursuer who moves slowly but cannot be escaped, the eyeless face, and the story’s biggest twist, which is famous but I won’t actually spoil in this review just in case.

Chesterton was a fervent Catholic, and his depiction of Anarchism as a philosophy may not be entirely accurate or fair.  But it still leads to some hilarious moments in the person of Gregory, who tries to disguise himself as authority figures only to fail because he can only act out the negative stereotypes he has of them.  And this moment, which commentators on the internet will surely identify with…

“I am afraid my fury and your insult are too shocking to be wiped out even with an apology,” said Gregory very calmly.  “No duel could wipe it out.  If I struck you dead I could not wipe it out.  There is only one way by which that insult can be erased, and that way I choose.  I am going, at the possible sacrifice of my life and honor, to prove to you that you were wrong in what you said.”

While the story starts out mostly plausible, the events become more and more unlikely, until the final scenes are almost hallucinatory.  We finally learn most of the truth about Mr. Sunday, or at least what he wants us to know about him.

Some of the story’s digs at society may take knowledge of pre-World War One English culture to fully appreciate, but as an extended philosophical jest, it’s amazing.

“The Ghost Pirates” by William Hope Hodgson is about a sailor named Jessop, and the strange events aboard the ship Mortzestus.  He hears even before shipping out on her whispers that the boat is ill-starred, but it’s going the direction he wants, and paying well.

At first, the rumors seem unfounded, but soon odd things are happening.  There are too many shadows, some not cast by any living thing.  Secured items become unsecured when no one is looking, and the sails behave as though there is wind, even when the air is calm.

When the ship is past the point of no return, the weird happenings turn dangerous, and then deadly.  The ship has lost sight of its course, and there are shadows following it in the water….

Mr. Hodgson was a sailor himself for several years, and the story is soaked in authentic detail and nautical terminology.  Having a dictionary handy for some of the obscure terms is recommended.  For those who love sea tales and ghost tales, this is a well-told treat.

Both of these stories are in the public domain, and can be found free on the internet, or in your library.

The magazine also has a tribute to Abraham Merritt, who had long been a mainstay of its pages, and had recently passed away.

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history of Japan and his personal life during the Showa Era.  It mixes events that affected the entire country with stories of his struggles as a man and an artist.

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

As noted in the introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, this volume covers more time than the previous three put together.  It covers Japan’s transition from a militarized country reeling from utter defeat, to a nation that was all about business.  Many of the events covered will be new to American readers (though manga and anime fans may see the roots of certain storylines in real life happenings.)

The book also chronicles the long years of poverty Mizuki endured as he struggled to earn a living as an artist.  Again, this is a warts and all portrayal, so we learn that his arranged marriage was by no means a love match, but something his parents insisted on.  Even when Mizuki finally makes it big with a hit manga, he learns that success is its own trap.  Now that people want his product, he has to keep putting it out on strict deadlines bang bang bang.

I learned a lot.  For example, while it’s been retrofitted into many historical dramas, kidnapping for ransom was a new crime in 1963, made possible by rising prosperity meaning rich people had enough cash to pay ransom.  The “paradox of prosperity” is discussed:  As rising prosperity made the inside of people’s houses more comfortable, the associated pollution made the outside of their houses less comfortable.

As Mizuki’s personal star rose, he had to take on assistants to help him produce all the work he was now obligated to put out.  Some of these assistants, like Ryoichi Ikegami, went on to become famous manga creators in their own right.  Others…did not.  A subplot in one chapter has an assistant vainly attempt to get his original work published to impress a potential marriage partner.

A couple of chapters are dedicated to daydreams Mizuki had, one where he takes a vacation to the afterlife, and another where he contemplates a company that facilitates extra-marital affairs (and admits that his long-suffering wife might also appreciate the idea.)  In real life, he reconnects with the New Guinea natives that had befriended him decades before.

The volume ends with a completely transformed Japan, and Mizuki’s wish that while the future is yet unwritten, the new generations will learn from the mistakes and suffering of the past.  Mizuki lived on into the second decade of the 21st Century, still working up until the end.

Once again, the primary narrator is Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), and we meet the real life person who inspired his personality.  One chapter is instead narrated by a traditional storyteller who mentored Mizuki for a while.  Readers who are unused to manga conventions may find the art shifts uncomfortable.

In addition to the standard footnotes and endnotes, this volume ends with a number of color plates that demonstrate Mizuki’s art at its most detailed.  this is great stuff.

There’s some uncomfortable bits, including rape, cannibalism and suicide.  There’s also some toilet humor (which at one point turns dramatic.)

Like the other volumes in the series, a must have for manga and anime fans who want to know more about Japan’s recent history.  It would also be good for more general history students seeking a new viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Most Star Wars fans are aware that director George Lucas based much of the look and feel of the first movie on classic Hollywood films and especially the thrilling chapter serials.  But have you ever considered what A New Hope would sound like if it were a big-budget film made in Hollywood’s Golden Age?

The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Someone certainly did, and put together a version that might have appeared on old time radio as part of Lux Radio Theater.  LRT was a weekly broadcast hosted by famed movie director Cecil B. DeMille that adapted recent movies for the radio, often with the actual stars of the movie reprising their roles.  You should be able to find episodes downloadable or streaming at various sites on the internet.

For this performance, there is a star-studded cast (provided by voice impersonators):  Mickey Rooney as Luke, Humphrey Bogart as Han Solo, Katherine Hepburn as Princess Leia, Bela Lugosi as Darth Vader, and so on.  (Rin Tin Tin as Chewbacca!)  It was recorded live; there’s some obvious microphone feedback towards the beginning and some of the cues are a teensy off.  Much of the story is carried by the narrator, who fills in what we’re supposed to be seeing.  (Saves on special effects!)

The story follows the familiar film, plus or minus a scene or two.  The dialogue has been altered at a few points to allow in-jokes for the “actors.’  (Bela doing the Dracula “bleh!” for example.)   Some of the impersonations are better than others; in fairness, some voices are easier to imitate.  As a purist when it comes to historical fiction, I was jarred by a couple of words being used that hadn’t been coined by the 1940s, even in science fiction.

It’s a lot of fun, and recommended to both Star Wars and old time radio fans.  On the down side, this recording had a limited number of copies made, and is now out of print, so may be difficult to track down.

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