Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

In the wake of World War One, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering around contact with the dead, was on the rise.  With this came a fad for mediums who claimed to be able to channel those unquiet spirits, both for the knowledge they had and to create uncanny physical effects.  Understandably, there were many who were skeptical, but felt that these mediums should be scientifically investigated.  Just in case there was any quantifiable evidence that wasn’t fake.

The Witch of Lime StreetScientific American, the leading popular science magazine of that time, offered a cash prize to the first medium to pass rigorous scientific examination and be proved genuine.  And on that five-man jury was one man who had a reputation for spotting fakes and chicanery–the magician and master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Most candidates for the prize were easily disproven.  But then there was Mina “Margery” Crandon, wife of a respectable Boston surgeon.

Her gifts, brought to her through the spirit of her dead brother Walter, were impressive indeed.  But was she the Queen of Mediums, or simply a master of parlor magic to rival the great Houdini himself?  This is the story of their meeting and what came of it.

Told in bite-size chapters and a handful of photographs, this book starts with Arthur Conan Doyle learning of the end of WWI, and his involvement with the Spiritualists.  His tours in support of the movement helped create interest in the United States, and indirectly led to the prize competition.  He tried to recruit Houdini, but the showman was less than convinced.  As became something of a pattern, Sir Arthur took Houdini’s politeness in not calling out a fake at the time as impressed belief.

We also learn of how Mrs. Crandon became a medium, but certain aspects of her and her husband’s earlier life are kept from the reader until much later in the story.  (And some mysteries are never solved.)  It should be noted that some conversations are reconstructed from later recollections, which may be fallible.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here for those interested in the mystic lore of the period, including a cameo by Theodore Roosevelt.  But once the investigation of Margery begins, the chapters start to drag, and it feels like the author stretched this part to fill out the page count.  Those of you who are history buffs will already have figured out that Mrs. Crandon didn’t win the magazine’s prize.

There’s a list of helpful sources for further reading, and an index.  There’s quite a bit of discussion of female private parts, from whence mediums were supposed to issue ectoplasm (and, it was alleged, where fake mediums often hid props.)  That might make the book unsuitable for readers below senior high level, depending on their parents’ discretion.

Overall, this is a helpful book for the reader who wants a quick look at Harry Houdini’s investigation of mediums from the aspect of his most famous case, and how it fit into events of the time.  There are several fine biographies of Houdini that will be more helpful if his career is the reader’s primary interest.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak by E. Phillips Oppenheim

In 1937, the dying genius Mark Humberstone bequeaths his marvelous inventions to a Council of Seven to be used in the service of peace.  Shortly thereafter, the United States grants independence to the Philippines.  When the Japanese attempt to invade the newly freed islands, their entire fleet is rendered inert.

The Dumb Gods Speak

The story proper picks up on April 14, 1947, in Nice, France.  This is the headquarters of the mysterious International Bureau, an espionage organization run by Mark Humberstone, Jr. and a man named Cheng.  Much rumor swirls around the agency, and the person who calls himself Mr. Jonson has come to join it.  Little does anyone outside the agency realize that it is on the cusp of a great coup–the end of war!

This 1936 novel was written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, a prolific author who mostly wrote spy thrillers and is considered one of the founders of the subgenre.   This one goes beyond techno-thriller and into downright science fiction territory.  The International Bureau uses advanced television (roughly equivalent to satellite TV without the need for satellites) and EMP weaponry; there’s also what appears to be some sort of force field, but that’s only seen as a parlor trick.

The political situation has stayed stagnant (presumably at least in part due to the actions of the Bureau); World War Two never broke out,  but Germany is spoiling for a fight (no mention of the Nazis.)  About the only major change is that Japan has had to set aside its invasion of the mainland due to its naval disaster, allowing China to catch its breath.

The Bureau’s plan is to turn China and Russia into constitutional monarchies, thus making them strong and stable factors for peace.  (Oppenheim was British.)  With that, and the demonstration of the full power of the Humberstone devices, war will be impossible.  Mr. Oppenheim was clearly not familiar with the concept of guerrilla warfare.  He also believed and put into the mouth of a character that without religion as a motivating force, the Russian army would have zero morale and fall easily.  (World War Two disproved that; their leaders might have been bad, their supplies inferior, but the Soviet soldier’s will to fight against invaders is unquestionable.)

Period racism and sexism is on display; Prince Cheng’s plan nearly crashes and burns because he failed to take into account that a woman might not want to marry a man she doesn’t love just because he told her to.  There’s also some not so subtle anti-Semitism.  (One of the villains is mentioned as being obviously Jewish, and there are no other Jewish people in the book.)

Quite a bit of space is devoted to telling us how luxurious the main characters’ lives are, what they eat, the fine wines they drink (they also smoke) and the fancy clothes they wear.  Mr. Oppenheim’s books were very much a predecessor to James Bond in these matters.

Humberstone, Cheng and their respective love interests (everyone is kind of surprised to learn that Cheng actually loves the woman he’s marrying) are kind of smug and omnicompetent, except for that one major bump I mentioned earlier.  More interesting are Mr. Jonson, who is also an omnicompetent as bodyguard/hitman/stage magician, but his loyalties are unclear for most of the story; and Suzanne, a femme fatale who works for the Bureau, who is very fallible and relatively sympathetically portrayed.  (I should mention there are lines in gratuitous French scattered throughout the book without translation, most are easy to figure out from context.)

The actual villains of the story are mostly notable for being completely ineffectual.  Mr. Jonson or the Bureau have been several steps ahead of them all along.

The title is explained near the end, when Cheng explains that the gods of China, long silent, seem to speak to him (and possibly through him) to restore the fortunes of his beleaguered country.

Content warning:  There are a couple of suicides.

There’s some good writing, but Mr. Oppenheim is trying for more utopian wish-fulfillment than serious thinking about the future; I think you would be better served by seeking out his straight-up spy fiction.

Movie Review: Cleopatra (1934)

Movie Review: Cleopatra (1934)

It is 48 B.C., and Egypt is having a bit of a civil war.  Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) and her brother Ptolemy both want to be the ruler.  The regent Pothinos (Leonard Mudie), who finds Ptolemy easier to control, exiles Cleopatra to the desert, then negotiates with Julius Caesar (Warren William),  representative of Rome.  Cleopatra has managed to get herself smuggled back into the city, and makes her own appeal to Caesar.

Cleopatra (1934)

While Caesar likes Cleopatra better than he does Pothinos, he is more fascinated by her offer of not just Egypt’s wealth, but India’s as well.  They soon become lovers, and Caesar takes Cleopatra back to Rome with him, planning to divorce his wife and marry Cleopatra so he can become ruler of both Rome and Egypt.

Alarmed by Julius Caesar’s ambitions and worried that he is too strongly influenced by the foreign queen, prominent Romans conspire, and eventually assassinate Caesar.  Cleopatra is forced to flee back to Egypt.

In Rome, Caesar’s buddy Marc Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon) has quickly used his oratorical skills to gain favor, much to the envy of Caesar’s nephew Octavian (Ian Keith).    A misogynist, Marc Anthony thinks it will be easy for him to trick Cleopatra into becoming his captive, despite the warnings of his faithful friend Enobarbus (C. Aubrey Smith.)

Cleopatra, however, has shrewdly realized that Marc Anthony is actually a repressed hedonist.  She gets him aboard her barge and plies him with fine wine, rich food, jewels and dancing girls.  It works, and Marc Anthony becomes besotted with Cleopatra, accompanying her back to her queendom.

There they are visited by the sly King Herod (Joseph Schildkraut) who is allied with Octavian, and turns the lovers against each other with paranoia.  Before this can bear deadly fruit, however, the impatient Octavian declares war.  Marc Anthony’s bold response to this wins Cleopatra’s heart for real.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true for Marc Anthony’s legions, who desert to Octavian rather than rebel against Rome.  Even Enobarbus is forced to repudiate Marc Anthony by his principles.  Marc Anthony puts up a valiant fight using the Egyptian troops, but it is no use.  Soon he and Cleopatra are trapped inside her palace.

Cleopatra tries to bargain with Octavian to leave Egypt if he will spare Marc Anthony’s life, but he’s having none of that.  Only Enobarbus’ reminder of the honor of Rome keeps Octavian from violating her peace negotiation immunity then and there.

Returning to the palace, Cleopatra discovers that Marc Anthony mistook her envoy for a betrayal, and committed suicide rather than surrender.  As he passes away, the lovers reconcile.  Cleopatra then commits suicide by asp herself, the invading Romans finding her dead upon her throne.

This is another Cecil B. DeMille film, this one produced just as the Hays Code came in.   The stranglehold was not so firm yet, so some pretty risque images made it into the film, especially in the scene on Cleopatra’s barge where she seduces Marc Anthony.  Dancing girls in leopard skins having catfights, yowza!  The sets and costumes are really nice with an Art Deco feel, and almost make up for the lack of color.

Cleopatra is the star of the movie, and Claudette Colbert shines in the role.  She has little actual power, and must rely on the men around her to get things done.  So she uses her sex appeal and wealth and psychology to manipulate those men into doing her bidding.  Cleopatra throws herself wholeheartedly into this endeavor, allowing herself to truly fall in love with Caesar and then Marc Anthony.

But it is all for the sake of Egypt, and Rome will not have Egypt be anything but a vassal, so it all ends in tragedy.  There are references to the Shakespeare plays here and there.

As always with the DeMille films, this is a highly romanticized version of history, but it’s a great movie.

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