Apr 142014
 
US 1st edition (Harper, 1940)
In slowly working my way through the works of John Dickson Carr I think I may have found a book to surpass the devilry and ingenuity of He Who Whispers as my favorite of Carr’s books. The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) is an intriguing mystery that not only features Carr’s most frequent recurring motif (a haunted house or haunted room) it presents two of the most ingenious impossible murders in the Carr (and Dickson) books I have read so far.

Martin Clarke is planning a weekend house party in which he hopes to show his guests the paranormal phenomena that pervade Longwood House, his newly acquired home with a reputation for fatal hauntings. Seems in the past a butler inexplicably grabbed hold of a chandelier and was killed when it came crashing down from the ceiling and landed on top of him. There have been reports also of furniture leaping out at visitors. The grandfather clock in the hallway supposedly stopped at the precise time the first owner, Norbert Longwood, died. And centuries ago Longwood himself was supposedly seen sitting by the fireplace the night after he was placed in his coffin. Clarke is ready for an all out ghost party and hopes to count among his guests a lawyer, a scientist, an architect, a spiritualist, and a priest. Clarke inadvertently invites danger to the house, too. Instead of fun and games with ghosts and poltergeists he has a weekend of violence. One of Clarke’s guests is horribly murdered and it seems that a ghost was responsible.

Benton Logan is found shot dead in a study in which an antique gun collection has been mounted to the wall above a fireplace. His young wife had entered the room just prior to the murder and swears she saw a gun jump off the wall and fire in midair. No one was in the room but she and her husband yet she was nowhere near the gun nor was her husband. Is it a possible that a ghost picked the gun off the wall mounting and fired it at her husband?

Gideon Fell shows up along with the police to help sort out the real from the illusion. Is there genuine psychic phenomena at work? Is Longwood House a cursed home inhabited by the ghost of a 19th century man rumored to have been involved in witchcraft? Or is it all the work of fiendish human hands adept at fanciful trickery?

UK 1st edition (Hamish Hamilton, 1940)
And remember that tale of the butler who went swinging on the chandelier only to have it become his deathtrap? There will be a chilling echo of that mysterious death and other threats and near murderous attacks before the mysteries are all rationally solved and the ghosts are put to rest. The solution when it comes is one of Carr’s most ingenious and gasp inducing finales. There are three obscure clues planted in plain view that can lead to an understanding of what exactly is going on in Longwood House, but only the most astute readers will catch them.

If you like your detective novels bizarre and puzzling, if the miracle problem or impossible murder is to your liking The Man Who Could Not Shudder will be right up your alley. The abundance of baffling situations will satisfy even the most demanding reader. It’s the kind of book that makes a true fan of detective novels want to give the author a standing ovation.

* * *


Reading challenge update: Golden Age Bingo Card, space G4 -- "A Locked Room Mystery". I prefer the umbrella term "impossible crime" under which all "locked room" mysteries fall. Not all impossible crimes have a genuine locked room, but they are all related to the same subgenre.
 Posted by at 5:30 pm
Mar 142014
 
1st edition (Stanley Paul, 1950)
Slick fantasy. Now there's a new term for me. I discovered it is a sort of catch-all subgenre "usually in short-story form, which deals with such matters as Pacts with the Devil, Three Wishes, Identity Exchange, Answered Prayers, Little Shops of the Heart's Desire, etc." and were often published in the slick magazines as opposed to the pulps. This is one of the terms invented by John Clute and John Grant, the editors of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997). Writers of slick fantasy include John Collier and Lord Dunsany and it is suggested that much of the work of  F. Anstey and Thorne Smith can also be included.

Joan Butler, the pseudonym of Irish science fiction writer Robert William Alexander, whose books were mostly humorous romances and class comedies in the Wodehouse style also dabbled in "slick fantasy." I became interested in these books when a small batch of them were being sold on eBay recently. The dust jacket art was colorful and striking and hinted at bombastic action and bizarre antics. When I learned that several of the Joan Butler books touched on supernatural and fantastic themes such as ghosts, haunted castles and reincarnated mummies I had to find one of them and read it.

Sheet Lightning (1950) is set on Deepdown Manor, an estate haunted by the ghosts of "Black Bart", an 18th century highwayman, and his spectral dog companion. There are a houseful of treasure hunters who descend upon the estate and among them several con artists at work in the dizzying plot. The book opens at an antique auction and quickly zooms in on a bidding war between two men who we soon learn were both involved with the same woman. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Lonsdale has recently been dumped by Beatrice Hastings for Reggie Mortimer, the other man, and they are now engaged. As a way to get back at being rejected Lonsdale outbids his rival on the purchase of a dilapidated Elizabethan tallboy. When he takes the piece of furniture home he discovers a secret drawer containing the encoded diary of Sir Richard Fawcett, alias "Black Bart". After spending a long afternoon breaking the code (something we are not privy to but must take his word for) he shares with his Uncle Iggy that the diary hints at a hidden treasure on the grounds of Deepdown Manor. The two of them make their way under the pretense of being architects hoping they can charm their way with the new owners and make their way through the house and grounds looking for the Black Bart's stashed loot.

Extremely scarce paperback edition
Soon the estate is overrun with visitors and prospective buyers interested in the property. The weather turns nasty. Legend states that with the approach of thunderstorms comes the ghost of Sir Richard. The guests and two new owners prepare for ghostly visits by locking themselves up in their rooms. But the temptation of the jewels and money keep most of the guests busy by sneaking out. Much confusion and wackiness accompanied by slamming of doors, bedroom switches and women dressed in flimsy nighties ensues.

Despite the premise that seems perfect for high comedy and some chilling moments with ghosts the book is only intermittently entertaining. Alexander has a good grasp of comic dialog and invents some amusing farcical situations, but he has a major weakness when it comes to delivering his laughs. Each of his characters suffers from terminal logorrhea. These people speak volumes when one or two sentences will suffice. I remember a phrase E. F. Bleiler came up to describe a certain writers' similar fault -- "drowning in words." In my first encounter reading Alexander as "Joan Butler" I felt as if I were repeatedly getting stuck in quicksand.

As for the "slick fantasy" element: though Alexander often set up a scene with the promise of some kind of eerie payoff I felt robbed when the only real ghost that ever showed up was a howling dog with fiery red eyes. Despite the wonderful dust jacket illustration showing Sir Richard and his dog, the highwayman never materializes. We do however, get an ample amount of bedroom farce, men who say "The devil take you!" on every other page, a very randy Uncle Iggy, and plenty of jokes about shapely women in diaphanous negligees. Alexander might have had a better career writing bedroom farces like Ray Cooney than these coy comic novels.

The Joan Butler books were only published in the UK with no US editions at all. Only a few of them were reprinted in paperback. Every single title, whether in hardback or paperback, is scarce and some of the titles -- Cloudy Weather (1940), for example, along with most of the Butler books published prior to 1950 -- are genuinely rare. I have three other Joan Butler books I managed to purchase for relatively affordable prices. I'm hoping that they will prove to be an improvement over this first one. Alexander seems to have something special, but based on this book is a bit lacking in his execution.
 Posted by at 12:24 pm
Feb 152014
 
Phineas Spinnet is the creation of Andrew Soutar, an incredibly prolific British writer during the 1920s and 1930s whose popular fiction mostly consists of romances and domestic melodramas. Soutar also wrote a handful of detective and crime novels some of which feature Spinnet who was popular enough to have appeared in a radio series during the 1930s. But based on this one adventure of his I can’t see what the appeal is.

Spinnet is part of that subset of supercilious private “inquiry agents” inspired by Sherlock Holmes. What Soutar fails to capture in all of Phineas Spinnet’s arrogance and misanthropy is the kind of respect Holmes demands. Spinnet is just plain unlikeable. He has intuitive skills rather than a talent for detection, an ego as immense as the Atlantic Ocean, and a coterie of lackeys who do most of the real work while he sits back insulting nearly everyone he encounters. He smokes his expensive cigarettes sneering and dismissing everyone around him as incompetent. It’s only the unusual background of the primary characters’ connection to British colonies in India and Ceylon that held my interest in this adventure of Spinnet’s aptly titled Facing East (1936).

The story begins with a great hook reminiscent of the best of John Dickson Carr. Sir Cuthbert Bale asks for Spinnet’s help in finding out why the legendary Death Watch specter has reappeared and is haunting the grounds of Grimston Hall, Bale’s ancient Tudor estate located in Crowhurst, Sussex. Captain Leech, a visiting ex Indian Army soldier has dropped dead while visiting Sir Cuthbert and witnesses claim that an apparition with a skull like face was most likely the cause. Any time the Death Watch phantom appears someone is sure to die shortly thereafter.

Spinnet makes his way to Grimston Hall where he meets up with a group of suspicious servants led by the sinister Lycett, Sir Cuthbert's Indian butler. The story begins to shift in point of view and soon it is clear that the overall mood and structure will be that of a thriller and not a detective novel. The servants are busy at night doing some mysterious digging on the grounds and explain that they are looking for a mineral spring for the possible construction of a well. Spinnet knows better that to believe such an implausible story. His suspicions of ulterior motives are confirmed when the chauffeur reveals that he has been reading up on the history of Grimston Hall in some library books and has learned of treasure that may be buried in the vicinity of the house. Then the chauffeur disappears one night after one of the midnight digging sessions.

St George's Church, Crowhurst, Sussex
scene of the criminal activity in Facing East
When Drugmann, an old friend of Sir Cuthbert’s turns up unexpectedly – again after travelling in parts of Asia – Spinnet is convinced there is some conspiracy at work to get control of the estate. Then Drugmann drops dead from mysterious causes though Spinnet is convinced he was poisoned, a fate similar to that of Captain Leech. Yet how was the poison administered in full view of three other people? The method of the poisoning, however, will not be revealed until the final chapter. Though there was ample opportunity to play fair with just how and what form the poison took Soutar chooses to allow Spinnet dazzle everyone with his intuitive skills in a gathering of the suspects in the drawing room scene. It is a surprise and rather an ingenious way to kill someone but I was disappointed that Soutar couldn’t plant a few more clues for the benefit of the reader.

Several macabre set pieces (again almost a homage to Dickson Carr) manage to maintain the reader's interest. These include an illegal exhumation, the surprise of a missing corpse in the coffin, some grisly antics in a family vault and the reappearances of the Death Watch specter in and out of Grimston Hall. Spinnet is assisted by Timson, an ex-convict manservant in the manner of Magersfontein Lugg, and a reformed con artist named Marie Crosby Dick who has a talent for acting. The two of them pose as a "Lady Blythe Kenny" and her servant "James" and hole up in a local inn in order to keep tabs on some other bad guys outside of the Bale household.

10 1/2 days back in 1930
Other interesting facets of the book include a section devoted to passenger air travel and the business of a commercial aerodrome that takes up all of Chapter 24. In this chapter I learned that, in 1936 at least, it took four days to fly to Australia including all stops for refueling and stocking of provisions. Also that in order to talk to one’s fellow passenger the use of special earphone/headsets was required to cut down on the deafening noise of the propellers. I thought it was the best part of the book.

I’m not sure I’ll be investigating any other adventures of Phineas Spinnet. He’s just too much of a jerk for me to care about him. Eccentric detectives were all the rage back in the heyday of the Golden Age but this detective who cares more about his jigsaw puzzle collection than people is just not the kind of character I’m interested in reading about. Give me detective with quirks and humanity, not this odious megalomaniac.

Nearly every book featuring Phineas Spinnet is exceptionally hard to find anywhere. Those that are offered for sale tend to be inappropriately expensive for such an obscure and unread author as Andrew Soutar. Facing East was the first one I came across that was relatively affordable. But save yourself the trouble of hunting, my friends. Here’s one Neglected Detective who is best forgotten.

*   *   *

On my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo scorecard (Golden Age version) this book counts as space L5 ("A Country House Mystery").

 Posted by at 2:26 pm
Dec 202013
 
Each year at this wintry holiday time Loren Eaton who blogs at I Saw Lightning Fall invites bloggers and creative writers to contribute vignettes for his Advent Ghosts celebration. It's a Flash Fiction Challenge of sorts but with a word limit set at exactly 100. No more, no less. It's also his community tribute to the Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. This year I was lucky enough to be invited to participate. Here's my contribution. It's inspired by a well known M.R. James story.

"The World in Solemn Stillness Lay"

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

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


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


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


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




For more chilling vignettes of a mere one hundred words please visit Loren's blog where he has gathered all the links from the participating writer's various blogs. Wishing a very merry Christmas to all you wonderful people out there in the dark.
 Posted by at 5:55 am
Aug 022013
 
1st UK edition (Collins, 1966)
I love reading ghost stories just before I go to sleep. Crazy, isn't it? While most people headed for slumberland will reach for soothing poetry, inspirational passages from the Bible, or any soporific reading material (I recommend 19th century textbooks) I keep a small stockpile of spooky story volumes on my nightstand. Nothing like a little chill or thrill before I turn out the lights and wrap myself in percale cotton. And ironically I never suffer from nightmares. Well, almost never.

Robert Aickman didn't like to call his fiction ghost stories or even supernatural tales. He preferred to call them strange stories. That they are. Powers of Darkness (1966) is a cherished book I found a few years ago at the Newberry Library Book Sale for two bucks. It's Aickman's second collection of tales and has no US counterpart. Only two of the stories that appear in this very scarce volume have been collected in a US Aickman collection. The rest exist only in this book. It's a thrilling mix of the eerie, the creepy, the spine-tingling and -- oh, yes -- the strange.

One of Aickman's more remarkable qualities is his ability to lead you down a familiar path only to watch it veer off into a dangerous detour. For example, you will be reading and come across a character who seems to be yet another female vampire. Before you can grow comfortable with this conceit, before you can manage to outguess the conclusion Aickman grabs you by the wrist and drags you through a fiendish passageway drenched in shadows and sodden with dampness completely disorienting you; you're unsettled, disturbed and yet fascinated.

Among my favorites is "The Visiting Star," probably because it is a theater story. It tells of Arabella Rokeby, an actress, and her return to the stage in a play that was a starring vehicle for her decades ago. The narrator expects Miss Rokeby to be an aging matron, but when she turns up he is shocked to see a beauty of no more than thirty-five. Accompanying her are Myrrha, a mysterious female companion, and Miss Rokeby's sinister manager Mr. Superbus. It's a story of possession, bitter envy, spiritual imprisonment, and power hungry control. The striking climax takes place in a visit to an abandoned lead mine of all places. At times chilling, later puzzling and, in the end, ethereally beautiful. The usual allusions to mythology once again are seen in Aickman's choice of odd character names.

Aickman is a master at reshaping the traditional weird fiction motifs and fashioning them into scenes that look startlingly fresh. Then he inserts those scenes into his world of skewed perceptions and ambiguous mysteries. Reading one of his tales is akin to watching those grotesque contortionists in new age circuses. Such cute little girls who amaze you with their pretzel-like bodies creating human sculptures that simultaneously marvel and repel. The experience of reading Aickman is just as paradoxical. You're smiling at a witty remark uttered by a character on one page and shuddering at what happens to that same character on the next.

Powers of Darkness also contains these stories:

"Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" -- The familiar horror movie trope of incessant nuisance telephone calls gets the wicked Aickman treatment. Closest to a true ghost story in this collection. Less said the better. A cult favorite among the Aickman fans you can find lot of blog posts and essays about this particular story all over the 'net.

"My Poor Friend" -- An employee in a hydroelectric advocacy group befriends Walter Enright, an unconventional M.P., to help him get a bill passed in Parliament. As their relationship develops it is revealed that Enright is burdened with monstrous children, haunted by a spectral ex-wife, and tormented by vindictive bird-like creatures...or are they something else? One of the more deeply moving stories in the collection. Much of the story is political satire and draws on Aickmans' personal experience with the Inland Waterways Association, an organization he helped found.

UK paperback edition (Fontana, 1968)
"Larger Than Oneself" -- Mrs. Iblis visits a New Age spiritual retreat and meets a unusual assortment of seekers of truth looking for something larger than oneself. All of them ultimately experience more than they ever dreamed of. There is an arcane reference in the main character's name. Iblis is the name given to the Devil in the Muslim faith, or to be more specific a jinn (a spirit creature) that refused to bow down to the first prophet of Islam. Lots of religious satire here and an almost out of place Lovecraftian climax.

"A Roman Question" -- The Wakefields while travelling to an academic conference are beset with more than a fair share of troubles. The story begins more humorously than creepy but with the usual disturbing detour into the Land of Uneasy when a young woman named Deirdre using folklore rituals tries to contact the missing son of Major and Mrs. Peevers, also attending the conference. The turn from light to dark occurs when Mr. Wakefield, the narrator, makes this observation: "But before the session ended, there was a moment, more than just one moment, when I felt that Deirdre was totally and wonderfully different from what I had supposed. It was as if I saw into, or had even momentarily entered into,  her soul."

"The Wine Dark Sea" -- While on a vacation somewhere in the vicinity of Greece a man wants to travel to a forbidden isle but no local will help him. He ventures forth on his own in a stolen boat and finds a private paradise where he falls under the spell of three women who call themselves sorceresses.  More mythological allusions, some sex, and intoxicating descriptive passages.

Several of Aickman's stories appear in the eight volumes of Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories which he edited between 1964 and 1972. Two of the tales in Powers of Darkness are also in the US collection Painted Devils, usually easy to find and affordable in the ubiquitous book club edition. An excellent radio program hosted by Jeremy Dyson, writer for the UK TV show The League of Gentlemen, offers proof that Aickman is "the best writer you never heard of." It can be heard by clicking here.

"Spirit is indefinable, as everything that matters is indefinable, but one can tell the person who has it from the person who has it not."
-- Robert Aickman, acceptance speech for the World Fantasy Award
 Posted by at 5:25 am
Mar 312013
 
In a recent book buying coup I snagged several extremely scarce books, a few with dust jackets. One of those books is The Black Cap, a collection of stories dealing with crime and the supernatural. It is edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith, a writer who dabbled in ghost stories and other genre fiction and who also collected unusual ghost and crime stories for a variety of anthologies.

The book itself is in amazing condition but many of the books I ended up purchasing had several dogeared pages -- and not just the upper corner but the lower corners.  Sometimes the pages were turned from odd to even page, other times the opposite direction. It was maddening to discover this.  The books would be in Very Good, some in Fine, condition if it were not for this annoying practice of the previous owner.  When I got home with my purchases I spent a good portion of the night going through all eight books and turning back carefully all the dog- eared corners and afterwards stacking the books and pressing them with weights.

While paging through this book I discovered only one story had been dogeared -- "The Smile of Karen" by Oliver Onions.  Onions was a unique writer who immersed himself in all sorts of styles and genres, but he is probably best known for his collection of excellent ghost stories Widdershins. That book includes the masterful tale "The Beckoning Fair One" which has been adapted for TV and radio many times. Between the pages of "The Smile of Karen" I found an index card with some odd phrases.



I read the story and the phrase "the smile that touched her generous lips" appears nowhere.  It's an eerie narrative with a fairy tale quality about a man who has oppressive control over his beautiful much younger wife.  He is also a woodcarver of amazing, other-worldly talent.  He has created a small statue of his wife but the eerie object has no face or expression. When the narrator asks why the statue is unfinished the woodcarver says: "Once she did not smile and I was happy, now she smiles always and it drives me mad."  The narrator of the tale befriends Karen and learns she is having a secret affair with a handsome man closer to her own age. She confides in the narrator that if  her husband discovers the identity of her lover he is certain to plot revenge. The tale ends in gruesome murder with a final grisly twist related to the statue.

Why the previous owner who wrote those phrases and stuck the card in a story of jealousy, possessiveness and vengeful rage eludes me. While there are passing references to Karen's beauty and the virility and handsome looks of Niccolo, her lover, I found nothing beautiful about the story.
 Posted by at 6:00 pm
Oct 282012
 
The ravenous Creeper out for another joyride
Time for my annual suggestions for this year's Halloween mini-movie fest, one you can have in the privacy of your own home. As always I tend to choose the lesser known, the dismissed, and the forgotten movies that will be good for a thrill or two this time of the year when everyone (well, almost everyone) is looking to be scared. Once again, the list is in reverse chronological order. All the movies are available in some DVD version or via an online streaming movie website.

Aidan Gillen, gravedigging -- a devoted father's work is never done
Wake Wood (2011) One of the most original and truly terrifying films I've seen in a long time. Takes the basic idea in that old ghost story chestnut "The Monkey's Paw" to delirious levels. A young couple's first child dies and they enlist the aid of a local spellcaster with the power to bring her back to life for three days. The ritual sequences are some of the most cringe inducing and nightmarish of any recent film. The overall feel of the movie is one of impending doom and non-stop dread. You just know things are going to keep getting worse for this couple who wished for way too much and don't want their daughter to leave them. It combines the rural pagan rites seen in movies like The Wicker Man and Harvest Home with contemporary spins on witchcraft and ghost movies of the past. A real modern classic. With Aidan Gillen, recently a nasty Machiavellian courtier in Game of Thrones, as the Dad; Eve Birthistle as Mom; Timothy Spall as the man with the power; and Ella Connolly as one creepy little girl.

Jeepers Creepers (2001) You'll never think of that big band tune the same way again once you see this gruesome shocker. Admittedly a mixed bag it's still deserving of a look despite its reputation for being a bad film. The good far outweighs the bad here. A brother and sister have a near deadly encounter with a madman truck driver. Later they do their Scooby Doo act and investigate some nocturnal doings that reveal the driver to be a monstrous killer. And when he spots them spying on him they become his next target. Jeeper Creepers is interesting to me because it dares to take a young man and treat him the way most modern horror movies treat young women - as a sexualized victim. I also get a strong vibe of this film being an allegory for the horror of sexual predators. Justin Long is the hapless hero doing what a heroine normally does in horror movies of this type. Also on hand is Eileen Brennan in another trademark oddball role (the Cat Lady) that is an enjoyable bonus. Victor Salva directed (a man with a few skeletons in his closet) and also did a sequel which I have not yet seen.

Wine, women, and prongs are abundant in Grapes of Death
The Grapes of Death (1978) Bizarre take on the idea of the walking dead. A fungus blight affecting the grape crop of a French vineyard has gruesome results on the wine lovers of the nearby towns. Kind of a Eurotrashy grindhouse horror movie with cheap special effects, blood that looks like house paint, and lots of opportunity for gratuitous female nudity. But for an odd take on zombies it's definitely original and has some genuinely frightening scenes. And some very disgusting ones, too. Gore-aphobics should avoid this one. Directed by Jean Rollin who also made --

Lust & madness in a Parisian graveyard
The Iron Rose (1973) Rollin's best and artiest horror film made before he became obsessed with lesbian vampires. A young man and woman visit an ancient cemetery and become lost in its labyrinthine, weed infested grounds. Their desperate attempts to find a way out lead them to secret crypts, hidden desires and eventually madness. There is no real plot, but it's beautiful and mysterious and an often baffling film to watch. Above all, it's imbued with an unparalleled eerieness. How many films include a lovemaking scene in a bone filled pit?

Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1972) The giallo category in crime/horror movies has quality that runs from arty decadence to campy to just plain dreadful. There is the arty gore of Dario Argento, the cinematic mastery of Mario Bava, the cruel and sadistic work of Lucio Fulci, and the trashy breast baring sexploitation films of Amando de Ossorio. I've seen at least one example of each and although I prefer my thrillers to be coherent and moderately entertaining I am willing to indulge in the guilty pleasures found in the work of those filmmakers mentioned above for the sake of the loopy stories, the eye-popping use of color, and the often terrible line delivery of the voice actors chosen to dub the primarily non-English speaking Spanish or Italian casts. On occasion I stumble across an example of this strange movie genre that is one I would recommend. If you've never seen a giallo and you want a good example -- one that isn't too laughably bad and includes crime, detection and elements of the supernatural you would do well to start with this one written and directed by Anthony Margheriti who often resorted to the English pseudonym Anthony M Dawson.

Doris Kunstmann & Jane Birkin discover something horrible

Corringa (played by Jane Birkin) has been expelled from her convent school and returns to Castle MacGrieff in Scotland where her mother and her aunt are bickering over selling the castle. We learn during a dinner scene that there is a family curse -- that if any MacGrieff kills another in the MacGrieff bloodline the victim will become a vampire. And soon members of the family are being attacked right and left.

The dialog in these movies is something to marvel at. You can count on someone saying something ridiculous about every five minutes or so. In this script we have such prizewinners as these:

Corringa: Too many books never did a woman any good. (as she tosses the Holy Bible and some other books into the blazing fireplace!)

Suzanne: Why all these scruples all of a sudden? When you found me, you knew I was a slut.

Dr. Franz: You are absolutely on fire tonight, darling! Are you excited by all the blood that has been flowing around here?


Jacqueline Pearce is cursed with
more than splitting headaches.
The Reptile (1966) Although the poor choice of the title already gets the viewer thinking of things that would have been better left a surprise this is still one of the better non-vampire Hammer horror films. Overall, I liked it and managed to forgive some of the creaky cliches and weak story telling. The plot is very reminiscent of the weird menace stories you'd find in pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. If the film had been told from the point of view of the doctor's daughter I think it would've been more effective. As written we have the new neighbors trying to understand the sudden death of the husband's brother, a mysterious doctor, his daughter in peril and an equally sinister Malaysian servant whose role is never fully explained even in the doctor's final monologue which is supposed to explain everything that passed in the first two thirds of the movie. Some effective moments, good creepy acting from Noel Willman and Marne Maitland as the sinister doctor and Malay. Someone somewhere mentioned this movie has some parallels to Hawthorne's brilliant supernatural story "Rappaccini's Daughter" True but the movie's pulpiness doesn't merit such a lofty analogy.

The Wasp Woman (1959) If you want another female monster movie look no further than Roger Corman's subtle satire on cosmetics and obsession with artificial beauty. Sort of a female version of The Fly and not so much scary as it is just plain strange. Susan Cabot pays the price for vanity when she decides to be the human guinea pig for a rejuvenation product derived from wasp enzymes. The title says it all. It was remade into a more campy version in 1995. Another film, Evil Spawn (1987), also uses the same premise about a youth serum that turns an aging actress into a monstrous insect thing. Recycling and rehash is part and parcel of the horror movie making world.
 Posted by at 7:29 pm
Oct 252012
 

While this blog generally sticks to discussion of mysteries, I want to broaden it just a bit today, less than a week away from Halloween, to talk about some frightfully good ghost stories.

At this time of year, we often see "top ten" lists of horror and ghost stories. Frankly, I rarely find myself agreeing with them, preferring (as I do) classic ghost stories to much of today's very graphic horror output. That's not the case this year with a list of "the top ten ghost stories of all time," as chosen by the readers of SFX Magazine. (And a hat tip to J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet for pointing it out to me.)

Looking at this list of ten - part of a list of the top fifty, which is available only to readers of the magazine - I am amazed at how many of them I know and really really like. There are a couple of M. R. James stories, and he is still my favorite author of classic ghost stories. There's Dickens. And Poe. The list includes movies, such as "The Shining," which is another great fright story.

But my heart is won over by their number one choice - "The Haunting." They like it both as the original book, Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House," and for the marvelous movie made in 1963 by director Robert Wise.

"The Haunting," to use the abbreviated title used in the movie, is exactly what I think a truly frightening book and/or movie needs: you never really see anything. The horror is in your own imagination. It is as true of the movie as it is of the novel; it has been decades since I saw the Robert Wise film, which starred Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn, but I still remember vividly some of the magnificently-acted scenes. The Shirley Jackson book is beautifully written, the characters memorable, and Hill House itself - "not sane," as the story says, "and whatever walked there, walked alone" - is truly terrifying.

Anyway. Read over the SFX list of frights and see what you think - do you agree with the rankings? What would you have included in the top ten - and what woud you have omitted?

Oct 122012
 
Odhams Press (1933), True 1st edition
Agatha Christie shows a completely different side of her writing talents in a little discussed collection of short stories called The Hound of Death (1933). Perhaps the reason The Hound of Death is so little known and never saw multiple reprints was due to the simple fact that it is not a collection of crime stories, but mostly tales of supernatural and fantasy. Can Agatha chill the bone as well as she does with bamboozling the mind in her well known whodunits? I think she does very well in some instances.

The book had an unusual publishing history in that it was originally offered with a handful of other books (including The Venner Crime by John Rhode) by independent publisher Odhams Press as part of a subscription series. The books were available only by purchase using coupons (plus seven shillings) that were collected from their magazine The Passing Show as a promotion for the revival of that journal. The book was later reissued by Collins Crime Club in 1936. The stories from The Hound of Death appear in three separate collections in the US. The bulk of them are split between The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories and The Golden Ball and Other Stories. One single story, "The Last Séance", appears in Double Sin and Other Stories. All three story collections are currently in print -- as are all of Christie's books -- in trade paperback and eBook editions from William Morrow in the US.

My intuition told me that many of the stories in The Hound of Death were written in her very early career. Further research proved my assumptions to be correct. Though the book was published in 1933 all of the stories were written much earlier with about half of them having first appeared in magazines throughout the 1920s. The earliest (and, in my opinion, one of the most effective) is "The Call of Wings." Written prior to World War I it shows a novice writer's love of symbolism, allegory and ironic endings. It's her most original story of a supernatural type in the entire book, perhaps her entire career.

Silas Hamer is typical of Christie's protagonists in these supernatural shorts.  He proclaims, "I don't believe in anything I can't see, hear and touch."  This is usually a sign that the character will encounter some life altering event that will challenge his rigid world view. And no sooner has Silas uttered those words then he meets up with a mysterious legless cripple playing enchanting music on  "a strange instrument whose notes were much higher and clearer than those of a flute."  The music is bewitching, transcendent and literally uplifting.  Silas finds himself floating and hovering above the ground.  It terrifies him and he finds himself clutching at a stone buttress in a nearby wall to keep himself from flying away. Later he attempts to explain what happens to him each time he hears the haunting melody:

"--the music carries me there--not direct, but a succession of waves, each reaching higher than the last, until the highest point where one can go no further. I stay there until I'm dragged back. It isn't a place, it's more a state. [...] [T]here were sensations of light..then of sound...then of colour...All very vague and unformulated. It was more the knowledge of things than seeing or hearing them."
"The Call of Wings" reminded me of a weird short story by Lovecraft -- "The Music of Erich Zann." Like Lovecraft and Manly Wade Wellman Christie's supernatural tales find her characters drawn to mysterious forces in the past, ancient unknown powers that somehow find their way into the hands of men and women of the 1920s.  In "The Gipsy" we find Mrs. Haworth who has a gift of psychic powers and the ability to recognize those powers in others.  Sister Marie Angelique, the nun thought to be mad in "The Hound of Death," somehow manages to harness an ancient power and summon a spectral being of horrible force to help defeat an attack on her convent by German soldiers. Even the sinister "half English/half Oriental" Lady Carmichael consults an old book among the dusty tomes in her husband's library to bring about the wicked transformation of her stepson. Occasionally, subtle allusions are made that intimate ancient creatures are present. It is hinted that the legless cripple in "The Call of Wings" is an incarnation of Pan who, tired of his goat legs, amputated them himself.

I found several influences and signs that Christie perhaps was familiar with the work of Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson and perhaps even Margery Lawrence. She follows a formula for many of these stories that those three writers all share in their treatment of the occult detective tale. A narrator listens to a story of an other worldly encounter from a friend. The narrator then does some investigative work to learn the truth behind the seemingly implausible or impossible events his friend related. In many instances during the course of that investigation the narrator also experiences some sort of supernatural event that explains the mysterious events. This is the formula used in nearly all of the stories. In one story –"The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael" – the model of a John Silence or Dr. Miles Pennoyer tale is imitated in full. Dr. Carstairs, a psychiatrist who could easily have become a series character, travels to Arthur Carmichael's estate in the hopes of treating the man's mental disturbance but instead winds up investigating a haunting and encounters genuine supernatural events that are at the root of Carmichael's personality transformation.

Psychic ability and mediums, however, are Christie's favorite other-worldly topic to explore. We find them in one form or another in "The Red Signal", "S.O.S", and "The Gipsy." Ghosts and haunted houses are the runner-up and occur in "The Lamp", "Wireless" (retitled "Where There's A Will" in the US editions), and "The Mystery of the Blue Jar."  Oddly enough I found her ghost stories to be the weakest of the lot, especially "The Lamp" a slight and simple tale of a lonely child ghost with the most predictable outcome of the lot. She works best when she is writing a crime tale that adds a tinge of the supernatural as in "Accident" or "The Red Signal," a nicely done story that shows a talent for the type of misdirection she will come to master in her later novels.

The Hound of Death and Other Stories
"The Hound of Death"
"The Red Signal"
"The Fourth Man"
"The Gypsy"
"The Lamp"
"Wireless"
"The Witness for the Prosecution"
"The Mystery of the Blue Jar"
"The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael"
"The Call of Wings"
"The Last Seance"
"S.O.S."
 Posted by at 11:33 am

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