Thursday, December 02, 2021

"The Festival" (1925)

Here is one of the many H.P. Lovecraft stories that did not make it into the skimpy Library of America collection edited by Peter Straub. In fairness, in most cases it's not hard to guess the reasons for exclusion—but, on the other hand, that collection had room for hundreds more pages and LOA projects devoted to an author generally bear some suggestion of completeness. A lot of stories were left out of that one. They could have been put in their own "approach with caution" section. So, right, not much happens in "The Festival." It's mostly Lovecraft laying an eldritch mood on thick. But making it a Christmas story redeems a lot of the inert qualities for me—or "the Yuletide," as our unnamed first-person narrator prefers to call it. He is obviously aware of the holiday's ancient pagan winter solstice origins. He is visiting the town of Kingsport for the holiday. He appears to have kin there who appear to know him. Or who anyway welcome him and bring him along to the festival. It's possible he is dead. The festival is held in a kind of cave next to an underground river reached by a stairway descending from a church basement. The church sits on top of a hill. There is a nice dream quality here as events unfold, an effect often sought by Lovecraft but less often achieved. This feels like a dream because it's in that realm where it almost makes sense, with careful use of details. The utter silence, for example—of the town, of the crowd of people shuffling to the festival, of the festival itself—is positively eerie and notably "off." Lovecraft had some mystical experience the first time he visited the Massachusetts town of Marblehead, the model for Kingsport. It gets mentioned a lot in relation to this story but I file it under Lovecraft's excitable temperament. ISFDB classes it as a Cthulhu story. The Necronomicon book is in it. The narrator's relative, "the old man," is a good character—he wears a subtle mask which is hard to notice at first and makes his facial features immobile. So lots of good stuff here but no real story—various horrors and grotesqueries of the scene at the festival proper, then over and out. That's not necessarily a bad thing when I think of the contrived getaway capers that mar some of his best stories, like "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" or At the Mountains of Madness. Still, a dreamy march to a mysterious subterranean chamber and some grotesqueries don't feel like quite enough either, hence perhaps the reason it was left out of the LOA (S.T. Joshi did include it in his Penguin collection of Lovecraft). I like "The Festival" because it's a Christmas story after all, and I believe it is Lovecraft's only one. He always was a great one for respecting tradition.

Read story online.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Monday, November 29, 2021

Don't F**k With Cats (2019)

When we last saw web sleuths in action (two weeks ago, in Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel) they were mostly all wrong. Here they are mostly all right. This Netflix miniseries starts, as so many things do, on Facebook, when a video was posted called "1 Boy 2 Kittens." Part of what is so interesting about this documentary is the power of this video and others posted by the same fellow. They are mercifully never shown to us, except in very small fragments, but they literally break down web sleuths and a police detective, who respond with blubbering tears and outrage, as do we all just knowing about it. In the first video the cats are killed by being placed in plastic bags from which the air is removed with a vacuum cleaner. These kittens are barely weaned, not even two months old, and they die. We see the corpses briefly, which he keeps in his refrigerator for later videos. This mysterious fellow kills other animals for videos and eventually goes on to kill a person. His story is another one that belongs to the internet age, interesting and creepy in its own right. Those of us who believe that wantonly killing animals ritualistically is a sign of a serial killer working himself up to bigger crimes are not surprised by how this case turns, but until that murder the web sleuths are unable to get the attention of the police IRL to take it seriously. For one thing, figuring out who the guy is at all and then where he lives in the world is no easy thing. The web sleuths manage it—all the various details of how they do so are there to be discovered. It's fair to call it fascinating, and relatable too, especially when they can't get the attention of the police once they have found the guy. Along the way, unfortunately, they do find at least one wrong guy, who is then hounded and harassed by web sleuth hangers-on until he commits suicide. Oops. That's the problem with these internet things. You can find out amazing things, but the mob feelings incited can also go out of control and ruin the lives of innocent people as well as guilty. On the other hand, our cat killer is anything but innocent and in general police will not take the case seriously until he actually does kill a person, also again done for the camera. Thanks to the work of the web sleuths—basically one of those private Facebook groups that can cause so much trouble—police are able to get the guy after only the one murder. If you have tender feelings like me for animals you have to be careful with this miniseries, which I think is worth seeing. They never show much, but your imagination is fully inflamed to terrible things. It's probably the next-worst thing to seeing the videos (which I refuse to look at myself) but at least there's a happy ending here and altogether it's an interesting ride.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

"Menudo" (1987)

I like this story by Raymond Carver, but it probably bears comparison with John Updike's philandering suburban dwellers. It also hits really close to home if you know Carver's biography or anything about his first wife. The ex-wife in this story ("Molly") is obviously her. Molly's New Age chatter and other details, as reported by the first-person narrator, may be exaggerated but the story is never kind to her. Still, the premise is instantly affecting, even gripping. Our man has been having an affair with the married woman across the street. Her husband found out she was cheating, though not with whom. At the same time, or recently, our guy's second wife discovered his affair, though also not with whom. He won't tell her even as she keeps guessing and he lies when she guesses right. Amanda, the neighbor he has been sleeping with, has been given an ultimatum by her husband to leave within the week. Amanda wants to marry the narrator. He doesn't think he wants that but he doesn't know what he wants. He can't sleep. It's 4 in the morning. He sits in his kitchen and watches the lights in Amanda's place. She evidently can't sleep either. But he can't call her. His wife is in the house with him and she's having her own sleeping problems and mad enough already. Mostly the story follows the narrator's distraught thoughts and memories, many about his first wife. He's trying to sort out what it all means: love, commitment, change. He and his first wife grew apart even as it was the great love affair of their youth, if not their lives. His present wife and Amanda don't feel like deep commitments. Now he's middle-aged. His first wife has changed forever. He has nothing. As usual with Carver, it is vivid, strange, sharply thrown in our face. The narrator is not looking for advice. He would snarl at us if we tried. He is looking for relief. Suddenly he is middle-aged and he still doesn't know what he wants. It's a great portrait of a desperate state of mind, but also painful to read in its treatment of the first wife. I think it's also good enough it has a chance, circumstances allowing, of outliving us all.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)

Friday, November 26, 2021

The Thin Red Line (1998)

USA, 170 minutes
Director: Terrence Malick
Writers: James Jones, Terrence Malick
Photography: John Toll
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editors: Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, John Savage, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok, Tim Blake Nelson, Adrien Brody, John Travolta, George Clooney, John C. Reilly

In 1998 the director and screenwriter of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick, had not made a movie in 20 years. To that point, he had made only two feature-length pictures (Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978). But they are well-made and had shown some cult appeal, so it was manifestly not hard for him to cast this World War II picture with all eager stars of the 1990s all up and down the line. At the time Malick was 55, which is pretty amazing all things considered, but what might impress even more about his career is that, in the past 10 years, into his 70s, he has made five more: The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song, and A Hidden Life. (Of them, I have only seen The Tree of Life and Song to Song, neither of which I liked.)

So this movie is already kind of a strange project even before you have seen a frame. It's based on a James Jones novel, but there is a lot of Malick in it too. All his familiar filmmaking tics are here: the brooding voiceovers, the attention to the natural world, the stately pace, the tone all but exalted. It affects me in the peculiar way so many of his pictures before 2011 have. I didn't like The Thin Red Line the first time I saw it, but I have liked it more every time since. This has unfortunately not worked as well for me with The Tree of Life, or even the intervening picture from 2005, The New World, part of why I've given up on the rest.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

"One and One Make Five" (1993)

[listen]

What I've always liked about this song is the turn of phrase in the title, which at first makes it sound like someone is just dumb or something. But there's a story here, another sad one on an album that features them, about a philandering partner who has just been caught again. I like the compression, proceeding to the inevitable via logic. The singer is adding up the clues, and then comes the flash of understanding, jumping to the number of betrayals it makes, and it's not a trivial number (5). On the album it provides a kind of light palate cleanser after the big stagy production of "The Theatre" and before "To Speak Is a Sin," an equally big production but different in tone. "One and One Make Five" comes across as one of the most frivolous tracks here, relatively short and with gimmicks, except for this sadness, which is experienced in the context of Very almost like a flavor of candy, cherry sadness vs. lemon-lime vs. blue raspberry. I like it—I like everything on the album. But it's a bit overdone in patches ("... giddy-up giddy-up giddy-up ..." etc.) (actually "here we go" but the moral equivalent of "giddy-up"), and it doesn't particularly add up to much. But what am I saying? It's good on relationships and the discussions therein. The singer, the betrayed one, can't believe his beloved homely comforts could be boring and foolish to his partner. The singer is the fool, and he doesn't know it completely quite yet. He is practically learning even as we listen. Thus it is poignant. But the singer also seems callow and smug. It sounds like he won't accommodate anything but his homely comforts. He could even be using them to imprison his partner. We don't know. It is just fragments of a bad relationship passing by.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

Riddles and confusion. You can see in this strange little novel that Mark Twain has a few scores to settle with the Catholic Church and romance literature, but I'm not as sure about the good old American can-do capitalism. Is that parody, or is it good old American can-do capitalism? I tried this novel when I was a kid, attracted by the time travel science fiction premise, but bogged down. I started over and finished more recently but it certainly does have dull passages. The premise is only a device and there's little here to tickle the imagination about time travel. Mostly the point seems to be that the time traveler, Hank Morgan, is way ahead of the people in King Arthur's time in 6th-century England. It's possible that the point is Morgan only thinks he's way ahead of everybody (human hubris, don't you know), but it appears more likely he actually is way ahead, as he quickly sets up as a tycoon, building factories and getting that backward world up to speed with dynamite, a stock market, and even telephones. Good job! If he is ultimately defeated—because people are sheep, or something—he still knows what's best, and we're probably still intended to agree with him. I know I do, on general principles: democracy is to be preferred over theocracy and/or feudalism. The structure is episodic, per the usual Twain, but these adventures just aren't that interesting. He meets a woman who serves as his guide, calls her the most boring person he has ever known, and sure enough, the whole thing collapses in on itself every time she speaks. And it's not that funny or effective to make your main character a basic egotist. He's not sympathetic and his accomplishments are not at all believable. Some of the things he claims to be doing give some idea how far back in history this is set. He builds a match factory so he can smoke, for example. He might note in passing that smoking is entirely unknown in that time, and really matches should be more impressive to them than just evidence of his peculiar habit (and where did he get the chemicals and facility, etc.). I guess it falls under humor, which doesn't always age well and doesn't always work for me here. Twain obviously has more sympathy and respect for Connecticut Yankees than Knights of the Round Table, which I can go along with to a degree. Perhaps the best part of this book is Morgan's unswerving contempt for royalty and nobility. Huzzah! But a grasping American-style hustler is not much of an improvement. If that's the point, it ends up tiresome.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

East Side Story (1981)

New wave UK popster unit Squeeze was always more popular elsewhere than the US, so I was surprised, looking it up, first to see that they did chart twice here and then that those occasions were in 1987 and 1988, with "Hourglass" and "853-5937," respectively. Full disclosure, I don't know those songs. I barely knew they were even still together then—and note, furthermore, they are still together today. But I think the very early part of the 1980s remains their heyday, on the new wave project of a self-conscious return to three-minute pop aesthetics and dynamics (and "fun"). I had the 1980 album Argybargy, their third, and loved it dearly, playing it to death. This follow-up East Side Story is arguably their best. The first single they released from it, "Is That Love," felt like a continuation of the Argybargy groove, a sprightly tune that skips and dazzles and clocks in at 2:31. The second single, "Tempted" (4:00), better represents attempts at growth and development, not to mention a certain star power. It features the band's newest keyboard player then in Paul Carrack, who sings the lead. You may recall Carrack's steady imploring style from the 1975 hit by Ace, "How Long." "Tempted" also features vocal support from Elvis Costello and it's still an exciting moment to hear his memorable, barely competent voice burping up and squeaking out his lines and harmonies. My complaint about East Side Story is not exactly a complaint. I just have never quite been able to put my finger on the whole. It skips around so willfully from style to style, asserting the pop mastery of Chris Difford's and Glenn Tilbrook's collaborative songwriting, that it never quite finds its own groove. These exercises include essays at country in the third single, "Labelled by Love," a limping "Eleanor Rigby" take in "Vanity Fair," all tarted up with a dreary string arrangement, and some tossed-off rockabilly in the fourth and final single, released only in the US, "Messed Around." The song that caught my attention most often listening to East Side Story again recently was the unfortunately named "F-Hole" (in fairness, an F-hole is technically the opening in the body of stringed instruments in the violin family). But "F-Hole," more of a rock band number with a driving hypnotic groove, is another song unlike any other on the album. I see I've used the word "groove" a few times, which is kind of unusual for a project that is so determinedly pop, at least in formal terms: it's all verse-chorus-verse variations with a lot of emphasis on melody and hooks, clocking in at three minutes at least aesthetically. The average song length here is actually closer to four minutes but you take the point. These songs swing wildly in style though most are recognizably Squeeze. I never quite feel like I have a firm grip. Yet playing it, I often find myself noticing how it is full of amazing moments. Maybe they don't quite all add up to an album (14 accomplished tracks notwithstanding) and maybe no song stands very well on its own—they seem to need each other somehow. Curious project, curious reaction. Solid good album?

Thursday, November 18, 2021

"Nurse's Stories" (1860)

This piece by Charles Dickens has appeared under different names ("Captain Murderer," "Captain Murderer and the Devil's Bargain"). I found it in an anthology of stories and assumed that's what it was, a story—a rambling and strangely put together one. But it's actually closer to an essay or memoir, with Dickens (or the narrator) recalling in daylight the horrific stories a nurse used to tell him at bedtime. It appeared originally in The Uncommercial Traveller, a collection of pieces with a little theme of travel lightly thrown over to unite them. The first effect of "Nurse's Stories" is that it feels like someone crazy talking to themselves. There are elements that make the stories feel like fairy tales, unusually gruesome ones. Dickens—or his childhood nurse originally—is intent on getting under our skin, effectively doubling the impact with two stories related only by their intensity. The first is about Captain Murderer, a serial cannibal who marries and eats his brides ritualistically, three times: "he chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones." The repetition along with the extraordinary scene described are part of what remind me of fairy tales. Captain Murderer comes to a bad end eventually and then it's off to a completely different story, this one about a family of shipbuilders named Chips. Each generation sells their soul to the devil for a specific list of products that are apparently irresistible to them: an iron pot, a bushel of tenpenny nails, a half-ton of copper (which they seem to be just toting around), and a rat that can speak. They're not as interested in the rat generally, but it comes with the deal. That story then goes off on a strange tangent about rats. This whole piece takes some getting used to—well, full disclosure, Dickens always takes some getting used to for me—but I like the rambling style here and when the narrator decides to be vivid he is quite vivid. It's obviously intended to scare with one overwhelming jolt after the next—that kind of horror, rushing you along, never letting you get your bearings. It's more effective than a lot of horror literature its age. In its antiquated way it's squarely in the mindfuck vein, which I can respect. I don't typically think of Dickens as a horror writer, but of course even the beloved A Christmas Carol is full of ghosts and creeps and let's not forget Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. I've been impressed with the other forays I've seen by Dickens into the genre too.

Read story online.