Thursday, May 26, 2022

"A Warning to the Curious" (1925)

This M.R. James story was the selection of Ramsey Campbell for the My Favorite Horror Story anthology. I'm still not sure about Campbell and haven't always been sure about James either, though I think I'm coming around on him. In his introduction to the story Campbell compares it to Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Familiar," which is a pretty good call. Once again James deploys a narrative point of view that is highly nested. There is a formal first-person narrator, who grew up in the English seaside town where the story is set. He meets a man, far from the place, who has a story to tell about the town. Within that story is a young man who is basically the main character of this story. This is typical of James, building formal distances into his stories, which can make them, as here, fuzzy and second- or thirdhand, blunting the impact in stark contrast to the vividly strange events recounted. Many things are "told of." Very little is certain. It all proceeds from a local folk legend that claims there were three crowns of East Anglia buried to protect the coast in some mystical fashion from invasion by "the Danes or the French or the Germans." I see the connection with the Le Fanu story, as something menacing begins to shadow the young man after he carefully searches for, finds, and digs up one of these crowns—the last one undiscovered according to legend. The familiar that attaches to the man is only a dark shadow, seen fleetingly, but he is accompanied by a heavy vibe. These crowns are intended to stay buried and protect the coast, see? The young man gets the point and manages to put the crown back where he found it, but it's too late. His transgression will not go unmet, and he knows it. The first time I read this it struck me as patriotic British claptrap, but then I developed a taste for James and can appreciate it more now as a potent ghost story. I like the feeling it bears of implacable antiquity and forces beyond our ken. The crown is there to protect the coastal town from Germans and such, but it will make short work of you if you get in the way even if you are British yourself. James paints his tones in blacks, whites, and grays and the story's most dramatic motions all take place under the surface, in rippling currents. It gets under your skin because that's where it takes place. The things it tells stick with you.

My Favorite Horror Story, ed. Mike Baker & Martin H. Greenberg (out of print)
Read story online.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

"I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" (1993)


The second song on Very comes with one of the most typically wordy yet laconic and very dry Pet Shop Boys titles ever (though perhaps still no match for my personal favorite, "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk"). It was the third single from the album, released late in 1993, and saw a fair amount of success in the US, where it peaked at #2 on the Dance Club Song chart, finishing #8 for all of 1994. In the Further Listening package Neil Tennant says he came up with the song when he spent a day flying to Scotland and back to look at a painting he owned by James Pryde, which he had loaned to a museum. I would not normally do that kind of thing either, having never done anything like it even once. As Tennant points out, it's basically a list song, running through things the singer would not do because, of course, at the moment he is presumably giddy with love and no longer knows himself for the moment. Well, that's love for you all right. Tennant allows himself a humble-brag about the Rite of Spring line: "I feel like taking all my clothes off / Dancing to The Rite of Spring." It's worth bragging about. That line has always jumped out at me, not least because the Stravinsky is one of my favorite pieces of music, so weird, dark, and thrumming. Perfect for this time of year. The Rite of Spring is probably worth dancing to too—it's a ballet, after all—but I remember more often being regularly flattened by awe of it. By comparison, "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" is practically a ditty. But a lovely little pop thing all the same and a nice setup for what's ahead.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Slipping-Down Life (1970)

In some ways it's hard to recognize Anne Tyler's third novel as an Anne Tyler novel. It's not set in Baltimore, perhaps most notably, but North Carolina, where Tyler went to college. There's a Black maid here who comes awfully close to a certain sassy stereotype, which surprised me coming from Tyler. This short novel is just weird in lots of ways, though Tyler's preoccupations with love among the repressed and/or introspective are at least discernible. But her understanding of rock music verges on bizarre, for one thing, although it also unexpectedly delivers some of the vibe of the Carpenters' "Superstar," which came out in 1971. Our semi-demi-hero, Bertram "Drumstrings" Casey, has a kind of loud troubadour act he puts on at the roadhouse. What sets him apart is his spontaneous "speaking out," which sounds closer to Elvis Presley interludes than between-songs banter or political screeds. He's a lost soul and spoiler not really found. Meanwhile, the real hero is Evie Decker, who is overweight and an outcast in her school social system. She has one friend, also overweight—it's Tyler's detail but didn't strike me as fat-shaming or unlikely. They are intrigued by Drum Casey and go out to see him. For reasons unclear—this is where the novel starts being unlikely—Evie uses nail scissors to carve the name "Casey" in her forehead backwards (as she's using a mirror in the bathroom at the club). This is not treated with any of the perfectly appropriate alarm it would be given nowadays. It bears some of the extremity of the fan / celebrity dynamic as we know it now, but it's also treated as vaguely comical, with the backwards carving. It's too much. Even 50 years later we haven't seen much face work like this, have we? Maybe a couple upside-down crosses and Post Malone's face tattoos? I must be forgetting something. Anyway, thus begins the strange and often strangely unnatural and ultimately pointless relationship of Drum Casey, 19, and Evie Decker, 17. Tyler was 27 or so when she wrote it and already it's her third novel, but it's hard to see what she was aiming for. In many ways it feels almost willfully misunderstanding of rock music or anything about it in 1970—much, indeed, like the Carpenters song, which is nonetheless somehow more haunting than this often strained little novel.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

White Light / White Heat (1968)

Of all the major Velvet Underground releases—The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light / White Heat, The Velvet Underground, 1969, Loaded, and VU—everyone has to have a least favorite. This one is mine—yes, and "Sister Ray" notwithstanding. It's not that I don't like the album in a general sort of way, their second ("sophomore effort," as we say) and the first after sidelining Andy Warhol and Nico. In fact, when I came back to White Light / White Heat recently I thought it was better than I remembered, even "The Gift," which has always been my primary article of evidence for not listening to the album more. That track lasts more than eight minutes, with John Cale reading a Lou Reed short story that is trying hard to be bizarre. If you want to stretch a point it might even be a kind of very dry marker for splatterpunk horror. Tensions between Cale and Reed were coming to a head generally during the recording of this album. I can hear it—or think I can—specifically in the production of "Lady Godiva's Operation," based on another Reed short story, this one apparently about trans surgery. Reed has a backing vocal where he comes in for a part of a line at a time, but he's mixed unusually high. It feels like a personality conflict, Reed asserting himself for the sake of his ego not the song. It adds an interesting tension, but it's also an uncomfortable tension. As for the 17-minute "Sister Ray" (or the "White Whale"), yeah sure, stone rock rave-up classic. The raw groove bludgeons. Distortion and fuzz dominate. Pounding monotony is a good thing in this case. Now Reed is mixed way down, as if the vocal can barely keep up, riding the current, under the assault of the band. Halfway in it is hypnotic like a factory machine. Heavy drug references and loopy sexual references abound. At 16:00 it's a horse race with the avant-garde rock equivalent of a photo finish. "Sister Ray" is much revered and perhaps deservedly so. But it has long verged on homework for me, and I've never fully connected with it. Thinking the length of it might be the appeal, I turned to the 38-minute version from the Quine Tapes box set, recorded in San Francisco. It's more slow-paced and methodical and in the style of the 1969 double-live (not surprising as both were drawn from some of the same shows in 1969). Moe Tucker hits and hits. The rhythm guitar strums and strums. Someone's noodling on a guitar. It goes through some changes, which sound at least semi-rehearsed. At one point, from about 8:30 to 15:00, it sounds a little like they're attempting to emulate "Dark Star." Where is Jerry Garcia when you need him? They were right there in San Francisco. The White Light / White Heat version altogether comes off better, much closer to the controlled chaos they appeared to be going for, the formal and conscious antithesis of West Coast side-long tracks like "Dark Star." Someone somewhere once observed that all of the Velvet Underground starts and ends with "Sister Ray," and anyone who claims to be a fan but is indifferent to "Sister Ray" is ... something judgmental. Guilty. But like I say, we all have to have a least favorite, even among the most loved sets of things. You probably already know exactly what you think of White Light / White Heat. But I will still say: Approach with caution.

Friday, May 20, 2022

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

USA, 88 minutes
Director: Preston Sturges
Writers: Preston Sturges, Ernst Laemmle
Photography: Victor Milner
Music: Victor Young
Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor, Sig Arno, Robert Dudley, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Al Bridge

The Palm Beach Story is packed to the rafters with loony comedic character actors, and it also has some of my favorite stars of the time, including Mary Astor and Claudette Colbert. And Rudy Vallee is a revelation here, smooth, self-possessed, and knowing. But there are points in this movie—the opening scenes, for example—when I wonder how director and cowriter Preston Sturges was ever allowed to make movies. It's so clumsy in its frenetic attempt to establish a premise, with quick cuts, mugging for the camera, pointless freeze-frames, people fainting, someone escaping from a closet. Madcap! Zany! Wackadoodle! But can someone please tell me what's going on?

Eventually the antics settle into a story—a marriage that has lasted five years is now foundering because hubby Tom Jeffers (Joel McCrea, a Sturges regular) sees himself as a stone failure. And he might be, considering his ambitions. His dream is to build an airport in the downtown of a city above the buildings, made out of steel mesh—I think we're actually intended to believe he's some kind of inventor-prophet without honor in his own land. But the main point of the story is the souring marriage, which of course will be saved by picture's end in a wrap-up nearly as frenetic as the picture's opening, and more pleasantly unlikely. Symmetry.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Southbound (2015)

Anthology movies keep getting a try in horror circles, going back at least to 1945's Dead of Night, one of the better ones. Since 1959, they are routinely compared to Rod Serling's Twilight Zone—even that franchise has tried the feature film pastiche approach a few times. There's a lot of ways to do them, with and without frame stories and connective tissue, but the one thing they have in common is that they seldom work very well. Too much narrative starting and stopping is part of it (the binge killer), and maybe the compression of the stories too, which often feel undeveloped (looking in your direction, V/H/S franchise). Arguably it's the case with Southbound too, as evidenced not least by the popular theory that it's actually about "Purgatory" (capitalized). Whatever. If you think about anything too much it falls apart, but the genius of Southbound is that it doesn't really give you time to think. You're just plunged into witnessing terrible events that somehow matter. That's why they're terrible. It's the usual unruly mob of filmmakers with these things (Roxanne Benjamin and Radio Silence directed three of the five pieces between them and also take producer credits, but there are many chefs working in this kitchen) and they hit on the device of making their stories interlock, and then more or less circle back to the start like Dead of Night, which is effective and disorienting. Southbound constantly almost makes sense but then falls apart right in the places that provoke the most anxiety. The stories are different from one another too, exploring different takes on horror set cheek by jowl and run through the gauntlet. With the whole picture coming in under 90 minutes, that's less than 20 minutes per story. Further cause for bewilderment is that it's not always entirely clear when one story is ending and the next starting. This movie keeps knocking you back, never gives you a chance to collect your thoughts. That helps make it work, but what really helps is that the stories are all pretty good—trippy, fragmented, shocking, insidious. High tension. And they waste no time. Monsters roam the desert. A cult wins converts with servings of mystery meat. A home invasion is brutal, traumatizing, mostly unexplained. Calls to 911 turn into surreal conferences. From segment to segment, Southbound tends to give you just what you need to know to wreck your bliss. Nothing is explained. Everything is understood. No time to think. Keep moving.

See DoestheDogDie report.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)

I admit I enjoyed this short novel by Mark Twain for the usual reasons, including that it has a lot of fun with European culture, but I believe it may be the fourth novel or story I've read by Twain that uses the plot device of babies switched at birth. So, to start, I'm not sure how much Twain has to say about European literary cliches. It's set in a Missouri town on the Mississippi River. It also has a pair of Italian twins who claim to be disinherited noblemen, which doesn't seem entirely improbable. The problem with the babies switched at birth story is it involves a lot of uncomfortable detail about race, with the story set in 1850 reminding us that Twain was raised in a slaveholding society and never quite transcended it all the way. One of the babies is white, of old First Families of Virginia (FFV) stock, and the other is Black. Or "so you say," as we go down the hatch of "passing" and mulattos and octoroons. Twain uses none of these words, but does tell us the Black baby's mother is 1/16 Black, which makes the baby 1/32 Black, and aiyiyi, I don't want to know anymore. It's all about explaining how such a switch could happen credibly but it's fatally flawed at conception except as a measure of racism. Everyone who reads this should know it's incredible and ridiculous to assign someone a social identity based on a solitary great-great-great-great-grandparent But here we are, "if you ain't white you Black." All this was in the air Twain breathed. He mocks it, gently, but he is obviously steeped in it. He rejects slavery but in the tepid way many of us reject capitalism nowadays, if we do. At any rate, as charming as Twain's tale here is generally—and it's not bad for Twain fans—it didn't really seem good enough to me to transcend its nagging problems. It was serialized, but a note by Twain at the end (not in all editions) talks about the way he came to write it. He originally had the Italian twins physically conjoined and it was mainly about them. But evidently David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson and his fingerprinting ways, along with Roxanne the slave and her baby-switching ways, just demanded the attention, and thus Puddn'head Wilson. That probably accounts for some of the lack of focus here, and certainly for the fleeting sensation I had that the Italian twins were conjoined. Twain has obviously had practice at this as the story is put together really well. If you like baby switching stories, don't miss this one.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over. (Library of America4)

Thursday, May 12, 2022

"The Hungry House" (1951)

This Robert Bloch story takes on the haunted house template and somehow beefs it up into something new. A young couple rents a nice but long abandoned house in the country. It doesn't take long before pandemonium starts edging in by degree. It's interesting to see a more conventional ghost story showing up in The Weird, as the anthology's editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have noted elsewhere they are not much into them. Bloch achieves an extraordinary tension here as events quickly transpire. He's usually good at story structure, and always good at keeping things moving, though he is also too often prone to a jocular tone and rimshot puns, which can dispel tension. But that's pretty much under control here, and his innovation of locating the malevolent spirit in mirrors and reflective surfaces is a good one. It's not so much the mirrors that set this apart as it is Bloch for once not getting in his own way. The story gets hooks in early and they only dig in deeper. The shadows and omens work in quiet but penetrating ways. Things seem to be there in the reflections but it might just be the light or the angle. There's a good moment when the husband finds a locked room in the attic full of mirrors, stuffed away presumably by a former resident. At a stroke it changes the whole story, accelerates the coagulating menace. You feel the clamp coming down. Bloch really wants to hit this reveal hard so the language becomes a bit overheated: "A thousand silver slivers stabbed at his eyeballs," etc. It takes too many sentences to find out these are mirrors. The scary part is that they are there, not that they glitter. But if some of these mirror passages are weak others are quite good, subtle and compelling, especially in the first experiences of the house. I suspect Bloch worked largely by instinct because when he hits it he really hits it. And he is hitting it here. He seems to be naturally inhabiting the material of this story, and it works. His depiction of the experience of this couple is great, and then, when we finally get to the legend behind all of it, that's great too. And Bloch is right to make us wait, because at the moment he's simply good at everything he's doing.

The Weird, ed. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online (scroll down).

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Top 40

1. Avalanches, "Since I Left You" (4:22, 2000)
2. Link Wray, "Rumble" (2:27, 1958)
3. Robert Walter's 20th Congress, "My Little Red Book" (3:36, 2019)
4. Gaslight Anthem, "The '59 Sound" (3:10, 2008)
5. Afghan Whigs, "Gentlemen" (3:53, 1993)
6. Afghan Whigs, "What Jail Is Like" (3:29, 1993)
7. TV on the Radio, "Wolf Like Me" (4:39, 2006)
8. LCD Soundsystem, "Losing My Edge" (7:53, 2002)
9. Coil, "The First Five Minutes After Violent Death" (4:58, 1987)
10. Consolidated, "The Ol' Mass Extinction Blues" (4:24)
11. Sigur Ros, "Untitled #8 (Popplagio)" (11:45, 2002)
12. Wire, "The 15th" (3:05, 1979)
13. The Quintet (Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach), "Perdido" (7:47, 1953, Jazz at Massey Hall)
14. Snotty Nose Rez Kids, "Grave Digger" (3:01)
15. Steely Dan, "Black Cow" (5:10, 1977)
16. Ben Folds, "Fred Jones, Pt. 2" (3:45, 2001)
17. Paul Revere & the Raiders, "Kicks" (2:29, 1966)
18. Sky Ferreira, "24 Hours" (4:04, 2013)
19. Warren G feat. Nate Dogg, "Regulate" (4:09, 1994)
20. Immortals, "Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)" (4:51, 1994)
21. Instasamka, "Juicy" (2:00)
22. Deep Purple, "Pictures of Home" (5:06, 1972)
23. Linda Ronstadt, "Long Long Time" (4:24, 1970)
24. Mina, "Se telefonando" (3:02, 1966)
25. Flamingos, "I Only Have Eyes for You" (3:23, 1959)
26. Seksikas-Suklaa, "Tuplavuoro" (2:26)
27. Funky Marys, "Konigin" (3:28)
28. Kuhl un de Gang, "Mer danze jaan" (3:33)
29. Irreversible Entanglements, "Keys to Creation" (13:41)
30. Little Kid, "John Arnott" (6:33)
31. Jana Rush, "Moanin'" (2:40)
32. Stacey, "Far Away" (4:02)
33. Vhoor, "Terra" (1:55)
34. Doja Cat, "Need to Know" (3:30)
35. Nirvana, "Milk It" (3:55, 1993)
36. Precious Bryant, "The Truth" (2:52, 2005)
37. Anansy Cisse, "Foussa Foussa" (4:35)
38. Carly Pearce, "29" (3:42)
39. Morgan Wade, "Northern Air" (4:51)
40. Nara Leao, "Maria Joana" (1:33, 1967)

thanks:, Dean, unusual suspects

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Black Sabbath's Master of Reality (2008)

Big YES to John Darnielle's treatment of Black Sabbath's third album in this 33-1/3 series title. It is one of the most creative from the series as it is technically fiction, which suggests a hundred ways to go wrong. But Darnielle, founder and sometimes sole member of the Mountain Goats, has since gone on to publish two novels, in the horror vein. But the novella or long story Black Sabbath's Master of Reality mixes up a resonant character voice with some very sharp yet plainspoken analysis of the music. The character is a teen institutionalized in a mental hospital. He is required to keep a journal, and thus our text, which often directly addresses his counselor or therapist, Gary. Our kid is furious because his walkman and tapes have been taken from him. Master of Reality is his favorite Black Sabbath album and Born Again (1983) is weirdly his second-favorite. He touches on the first two Black Sabbath albums and all the songs on Master of Reality. It turns out, by the way, that Master of Reality is another one of those things with weird versioning problems. Look it up sometime. The story here is divided into two parts, the first in 1985 when our kid is institutionalized and writing the journal, and the second in 1995, when he has decided to write a letter to Gary. Now he is 26 and works as a restaurant manager. He's still mad at Gary and defending Black Sabbath. My own story with Black Sabbath goes like this: I went for "Iron Man" in high school but the band scared me because of the burnouts they attracted, I ignored them until Born Again, which had a cover that scared me, and I was finally goaded into really listening to them after reading Joe Carducci's anti-pop screed in the '90s. Master of Reality was also Carducci's favorite, so that's the album I ended up with. It did not impress me very much either way, which was not helped by my bad attitude about Carducci. This book was helpful for finally seeing some light on the album. It's not as aggressive as the primal metal label (or "War Pigs") might lead one to believe (though my favorite song has a spooky title, "Children of the Grave"). This is another book in the 33-1/3 series that ranks with the best, although I'm not sure anyone else could ever try this fictional approach again. Or maybe they have! It's a big series now. I should also say the Mountain Goats have always been lost on me. My next move with Darnielle would probably be one of the novels. Don't miss this one if you're reading them.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic, which is over.