Friday, August 14, 2015

Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories (1980)

uncredited, Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Watermill Press, 1980
______, Midnight Fright: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Watermill Press, 1994

Midnight Fright at Goodreads
Midnight Fright at IBSFdb
Midnight Fright at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

This tiny anthology of five supernatural tales, specifically labeled "ghost stories," is essentially made up of tales widely available over the internet as well as across numerous print anthologies. Surprisingly re-printed in 1994, the anthology will likely never be printed again, as the internet has made most tales in this vein and in this period so readily available. The initial packaging of this five-some appears quite generic and nondescript, though I do like the simple cover (pictured), while the 1994 reprint is packaged as a set of tales for young adults, with an amusingly colourful cover by Mia Tavonatti. By packaging such a volume for a younger readership, the implication is that the stories would not frighten adults, and yet many of these tales have serious threads that only adults can appreciate. (Of course I'm generalizing.)

I mention that the stories are "labeled" as ghost stories because, if we are to examine each one of them individually, four of the five are not ghost stories at all. In fact, many nineteenth century and early twentieth century ghost stories are not actually ghost stories, including some popular tales consistently labeled and anthologized as such. The separation of fiction into genres, eventually associating stories with a certain "class" of readership, was a practice popularized in the early twentieth centuries (thereby H.G. Wells and R.L. Stevenson are considered literature, M.R. James is sometimes considered literature, while latter twentieth century authors of the supernatural are most often considered trash--another generalization). In more recent years the practice of classifying stories has increased drastically and the expansion of sub-genres has exploded to the point that contemporary readers have become obsessed with classifying fiction the way entomologists have been classifying insects. From a revisionist point of view, we can examine the stories collected in Midnight Fright in light of genre, and re-classify them in light of of contemporary approaches to genre. I will here examine the stories as ghost stories and in most cases de-classify them as such, and invite others to attempt to properly re-classify them. The benefit in such an exercise is to understand the development of genre in fiction, as well as to examine our changing perceptions of genre. More importantly, the author's own intention is clearer since often specific genres have adverse affect on the fiction itself, and as discussed below, in particular the Dickens's "The Signalman" and Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" are vastly different if we were to view them as ghost stories rather than as what they actually are.

Of course this review is filled with spoilers. If you haven't already, please read the stories themselves. All are good and most are great, and they are individually a better read than my silly review.

On a side-note I will briefly look at the anthology itself. As a collection the story choices are for the most part good, assuming a young readership who hasn't yet encountered the classics and often anthologized stories by Dickens, Gilman and Maupassant. The layout and printing is unfortunately poorly done, so that the diary entries in "The Horla" are mashed together while space breaks are not always obvious.


The Signalman by Charles Dickens     5/10
First published in Mugby Junction, 1866

This excellent story by this excellent author remains powerful not for its final, climactic and revelatory moment, but for the real tragedy the situation embodies. A lonely signalman is visited by our wandering narrator who is curiously drawn to the man. After an awkward introduction, the two men strike up an acquaintance, and the signalman confides in the gentleman that an apparition that has visited him twice before a tragic event on the track, has once again appeared to him a few days past, indicating that another tragedy is about to strike.

The idea that the apparition is a ghost is inaccurate. If we are to accept that a ghost is the spirit of a deceased person that exists within the plane of the living, the figure seen by the signalman is not a ghost. Instead, the apparition is an astral projection in time; the image of a (living) train engineer in the future appearing to the signalman. There is no projection of place as the image appears exactly where the real engineer will appear at the end of the tale, and simply appears out of time. Built into the narrative is the idea that the signalman has a sensitive connection to the moment of his death, and it is not the engineer who attempts to warn him of his impending death, but he himself who is picking up this message. It is interesting that the story is titled "The Signalman" rather than "The Ghost," or "The Apparition," or pretty much anything else. The story is about the signalman more than it is about anything else, with Dickens's narrator focusing on character. Dickens's idea is that he is a signalman not only in occupation but in his innate ability to pick up this signal from the future.

Dickens's idea of a signal and the sensitive connection to the signalman's death is also shared with the narrator. This man, who we know little of and who appears to act primarily as a narrator-witness to the supernatural event, is drawn to the signalman without reason or motive. This is highlighted when he is unable to give a reason when the signalman requests one. The narrator is observant and rational, and attempts to reason with the signalman, offering up excuses as lame as it is all just coincidence, which neither of the men believe. The rational gentleman is toying a little with the signalman, trying to elevate his status and trying to lead him to believe in a rational explanation, when in reality he is trying to convince himself of reason, to explain being drawn to this spot and to this man from who knows where and across what distance.

Interestingly, a faithful and very good BBC adaptation of the story has a similar interpretation, and segments the different meetings between the two men by focusing on the wanderer as he lies in bed, unable to sleep, and clearly disturbed by not only the signalman's dilemma, but his own involvement in it. It is even hinted that he too received a spirited visit on the last night in his room. This version uses the sound of the bell and train as a conduit between the event and the wanderer: though he does not hear the bell while in the cabin with the signalman, the sounds do play out vividly as he is racing toward the track, fearing the worst, implying that a connection does exist.

Dickens makes it clear that the narrator has a connection but that the connection is not as strong as that of the signalman, and it is possible that the signalman's sensitive nature is extending to the narrator, so he is psychically reaching out toward the narrator or anyone else who might be passing by. Among the many nineteenth century notions that Dickens believed strongly in was mesmerism, and the idea of a kind of attraction between these two men is heightened by this fact, and also by the fact that mesmeric connections also exist in other works, notably The Mystery of Edwin Drood.



Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit     6/10
First published in Home Chimes, December 1887

A young, loving couple move into a lovely, strangely inexpensive home in a rural community outside London. They soon learn from their hired help that the house and the nearby church are cursed: On Halloween night of each year the two churchyard marble statues walk the grounds over to their very home, and should they encounter anyone on their journey, that person shall perish. Not a bad story as story's go, but highly predictable. Author Nesbit fills her stories with many standard supernatural tropes, such as including a rational witness to the events (a neighbour, also an outsider, and a doctor disbelieving in all this nonsense), and leaving physical evidence via a marble finger in the hand of the eventual victim.Not deftly handled as the reader wonders how such a frail woman can break off a marble finger that has survived so many generations, and our narrator proves himself to be an imbecile with the idiotic decisions he makes (returning to the churchyard with the doctor when he is convinced the stones have walked and his lover might be in danger).

As far this being a ghost story, it does not work as such. The marble figures come to life, or more accurately, become animated as part of an ancient curse. There is no indication that a ghost is involved, or that the figures themselves are in any way haunted. This is a supernatural story that involves a curse. The titular object in "The Monkey's Paw" is also cursed, and no one would suggest that paw is a ghost, even though it might give a slight curl when in the wisher's hand. Cursed objects are not ghosts, and instead are more akin to stories of witchcraft since some spell is involved, even there is no direct evidence of a witch.


The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman     9/10
First published in New England Magazine, January 1892

There is a reason "The Yellow Wallpaper" is among the most anthologized stories in both non-genre and genre publications: it is a powerful story, well written, that acts well as a suspense story as it does as social commentary. As sub-genre the story can be classified as psychological horror and not at all as a ghost story. In fact, claiming "The Yellow Wallpaper" to be a ghost story removed its social implications and hence the author's obvious point. If the shape behind the wallpaper exists outside of the narrator's mind, then it is that supernatural force that is driving her mad, rather than the incarceration by the rational individuals around her. The implication that society is incarcerating women, segregating them as ill and removing them from their function within society is weakened by the ghost theory. Our narrator does, near the beginning when describing the house they are spending the summer in, refer to it as being haunted, but she does so to indicate the impression she has received from the house's seclusion, and is not being literal. It is she who will, in a sense, haunt that house and haunt the nursery, her room she is essentially trapped in. The mysterious figure behind the wallpaper is undoubtedly stemmed from her overwrought mind, a projection of herself onto, or into, the wallpaper itself. Since she is unable to escape the barred room of the nursery, and her husband unwilling to leave that house even if just for the summer, it is the constraints of her mind that the woman has successfully escaped from. There is nothing in the text that in any way implies a ghost is present, and the powerful final moment, that creepy "creeping" scene, is powerful and horrific because there is no ghost.


The Cigarette Case by Oliver Onions     7/10
First published in The Weekly Tale-Teller, 13 August 1910

This story employs the all-too familiar setting of a narrator telling of a man who in turn is telling a ghost story, this time to the members of their club. The man recounts his experience visiting France with a friend many decades ago, when they encountered some ghosts with whom they visited. "The Cigarette Case" is the only genuine ghost story of the fivesome collected in the anthology. It is fairly standard in concept and approach, yet it is well written and entertaining. Like many ghost stories we are here given a witness who simultaneously corroborates the tale and yet does not: the friend was present at the time and yet is not in this story with the implication that he has since died. We are also given physical evidence of the ghost in the form of the cigarette case of the title.


The Horla by Guy de Maupassant (translator not credited)     8/10
First published in Gil Blas, 26 October 1886; first English translation published in Modern Ghosts, 1890

Maupassant's famous story is a diary narrative of a man losing his mind under the stress of being pursued by an invisible creature from Brazil. Not a ghost story at all, the creature is clearly an invisible Brazilian vampire (a sub-genre all of its own). The idea that the creature is a vampire is mentioned in the text itself, yet as a suggestion and not as fact. The creature is a kind of parasite, invisible and possibly humanoid in form. The invisibility can suggest a ghost and that our narrator's home has suddenly become haunted, yet the being is clearly alive, a living, thinking parasite, and is also mobile, not restricted to the house as standard ideas of haunted houses suggests. The creature closely resembles that of Ambrose Bierce's invisible creature from "The Damned Thing," a being whose colour is not visible to the human eye.


Friday, July 31, 2015

Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger (1911)

Lowndes, Marie Belloc, The Lodger, McClure Magazine, January 1911
______, The Lodger, 1913
______, The Lodger, New York: Dell Books, 19 (my edition, pictured)

The Lodger at Goodreads
The Lodger at IBList

Rating: 8/10

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.


The literary myth surrounding Marie Belloc Lowndes's most famous work is that it stemmed from a dinner party conversation. Someone reported that they knew of a former cook and butler who temporarily housed the Whitechapel Murderer, today better known as Jack the Ripper. First published in 1911, just under a quarter of a century after the infamous crimes, Lowndes's novel reflects an interest in that particular scenario and hence does not focus primarily on its titular character. Instead, it focuses on the aging and struggling couple and their strained relationship more than it does on the crimes and the killer. This is to the novel's benefit, as the tense relationship does more to enhance the murders than would any amount of blood.

Moreover, the work acts as an interesting position on the actual crimes: it was written early enough to have avoided the modern Ripper canon, so that there are more murders attributed to the moniker. It also appeared at a time when censorship prohibited any kind of accurate description of the Ripper's brutal slayings. No dismembered corpses and displaced organs; just a little bit of blood.

It is no wonder that, though I read the novel as a teenager in the anthology of Jack the Ripper stories, Red Jack (Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh & Frank D. McSherry, jr., eds, NY: DAW Books, 1988), I had absolutely no recollection of it. At that age I was seeking the thrills of suspense, violence and surprise endings, and probably wasn't even aware of the incredible tension generated by the protagonists: landlords Robert and Ellen Bunting. The Buntings are retired butler and cook, and in their retirement age are suffering from poverty, from years of repressed emotion, and from memories of past glory. The presence of this mysterious and eccentric lodger, Mr. Sleuth, who might be responsible for the recent spate of killings attributed to a serial killer known as the Avenger, acts as a kind of personification of the troubles between man and wife.

Lowndes's prose is gaslit: dark and hazy, tight and claustrophobic. Immediately the gloom is established, the room cozy yet in a "grimy" London neighbourhood, where the focus on our heroes is in light of their poverty. Effective too is the contrast between husband and wife: Mr. Bunting is "leaning back in a deep leather arm-chair," while Mrs. Bunting is "sitting up in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair." This contrast is important as it accurately delineates the characters, and might as well be describing how they are settled within their own skins. Whereas Mr. Bunting is mostly relaxed and easy-going, Mrs. Bunting is a ball of anxiety. It is she who first suspects that their Lodger might be the Avenger, and she clutches at this secret though it makes her incredibly tight and wound up, bordering on a nervous breakdown. Mr. Bunting only suspects their lodger fairly late in the narrative, and while he too becomes unbearably nervous, it is clear that his wife has the strongest sensibility and is better able to cope with the anxieties, though unfortunately she releases steam by snapping at her devoted ans sensitive husband.

Mrs. Bunting can come across as unlikeable in her extreme treatment of her easygoing husband, yet there is the understanding that this side of her is a result of the stresses of poverty, heightened by the suspicion she is housing a serial murderer. Most interesting in her characterization is an instinctive, irrational need in the early part of the text to defend her lodger. While part of this is denial that Mr. Sleuth is a killer, there is a side of her that feels compelled to protect the man. Having been servant and servient throughout her career, she harbours a sense of responsibility to the man whose basic household needs she is catering to. All this despite the guilt--and in this she is guilty--of allowing the Avenger to commit more murders. In protecting his identity she is an accomplice to the deaths that occur during his stay at her home. An unlikeable character who is accomplice to murder makes for a unique protagonist, and this heightens the novel both in interest and in complexity, a work well in advance and subtlety than Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (though in fairness the two are mostly incomparable).

Other characters are less dimensional. Mr. Bunting has some level of complexity, though this is primarily in light of his relationship with Ellen Bunting, for otherwise he has a fairly fixed personality to comply with his role in the novel. His niece and her lover, local policeman Joe Chandler, exist primarily to break the tensions of the story, to offer some light amid the gloom, and with their blossoming romance, some sense of a possible positive future. In addition, Chandler is required in order to share information with both the Buntings and the reader, to hypothesize and to increase certain elements of tension, such as the lodger's abhorrence of visitors to the house. The lodger himself, Mr. Sleuth, is a mysterious, anxious eccentric who is fairly stock, though it is his stockness within these qualities that makes him suit his role.

A novel for which much can be written and through several angles, and one I will certainly revisit.



Thursday, July 16, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Suicide Club (1882)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Suicide Club, London: Chatto & Windus, 1882

The Suicide Club at Goodreads
The Suicide Club at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


The three novelettes that make up Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club are interlinked tales that form a part of his New Arabian Nights project. Along with the second cycle of stories in the first volume of New Arabian Nights, these stories were originally published in London Magazine between June and October of 1878. New Arabian Nights collected tales modeled after the Thousand and One Nights, only here it is the narrator (Stevenson) transcribing tales recounted to him by an "Arabian author." The stories are certainly inspired by the format of the original Arabian Nights, which collects a large number of stories and fragments, some interrelated while others standalone (though this depends on which version is at hand since most translations feature selections from the tales rather than the complete works). Though there are allusions to the past, Stevenson's stories are distinctly wrapped up in Victorian conventions and are an important chapter in the development of the Victorian mystery, and by extension the development of the mystery genre. These works are also important forerunners in the evolution of the modern short story.

The Suicide Club is a triptych of individual narratives focusing on separate characters, while interlinking a single main plot. The concept is excellent, though Stevenson's aim is adventure rather than mystery or moral conundrum, both of which are serious potential avenues. To the modern reader this is unfortunate, since the strengths of each of these stories is the heightened suspense and mystery. Despite the emphasis on adventure, the three tales are nonetheless enjoyable and certainly well written.


Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts
First published in London Magazine, 1878

Seeking adventure, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his friend Colonel Geraldine, enter an oyster bar in disguise. Boredom is soon alleviated with the appearance of a young man offering patrons cream tarts. Some accept the pastries while others decline, and in the cases where the pastries are not accepted, the young man must himself eat the tart. Curious, the two friends seek the young man's acquaintance and take an immediate liking to him. Through this encounter they learn of a Suicide Club, an organization that caters to men wishing to put an end to their lives.

The strongest part of the story is its middle. The opening is certainly original but the logic is at times lacking, whereas the end is plunged into adventure and hinges on some plot conveniences. The middle, however, is well paced and builds itself nicely in revealing the method in which the victim is selected. It also contains the most interesting character of any of the stories, a certain Mr. Malthus.


Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk
First published in London Magazine, 1878

While the previous story's best portion is its second third, the second story's strength is in its third. With somewhat comical tone we are introduced to Silas Q. Scuddamore, a moody American from Bangor, Maine, whose uncertain emotions deliver him into a conniving plot. Silas Scuddamore manages to get wrapped up in having to dispose of a corpse, and due to his sensitive nature, this makes for a strong sequence with a Saratoga trunk.

Interestingly, the title is not entirely accurate in the sense that the story is not about the physician and is clearly not his story. The trunk, however, and more accurately its contents, does play a large role. It should instead be titled "Story of the American and the Saratoga Trunk." Or "Story of the American Tourist and The Bohemian Corpse."


The Adventures of the Hansom Cab
First published in London Magazine, 1878

The final story's best portion is its beginning. In fact, the opening to "The Adventures of the Hansom Cab" is one of the better introductions to any story I have come across for some time. A man is picked up by a cab and brought over to a house where a party is being held. It appears the host has sent several cabs throughout London to find single gentlemen and deliver them to the house. Our curious and brave protagonist attends the party, and hiding behind some curtains (a classic trope), he watches as the host slowly sends guests away on the pretext that their invitation was a misunderstanding. The gentleman's involvement with the remainder of the plot begs the reader to wonder at the need for such a hyperbolic ruse, but the first portion of the story is so strong that we can forgive the rest when it begins to falter.

Since each story has a stronger third, it might be interesting to re-visit this work and create a version that begins with the Hansom Cab, continues with the Cream Tarts, and finished with the Saratoga Trunk. Of course there would be no resolution to the main plot, but even Stevenson rushed his own resolution via an odd decision. The final conflict, a dual between our Bohemian prince and the president of the Suicide Club, is presented away from the action, with two minor characters waiting to know who comes up victorious. Potentially tense, the scene lacks suspense as it is brief, not to mention that it is obvious which party will come out victorious, and which will fall at the blade of the sword.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The 4400: Terrible Swift Sword

Terrible Swift Sword (episode 3.11)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Ira Steven Behr, Bruce Miller & Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brennan Elliott, Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Sean Marquette
First aired 20 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: The Gospel According to Collier
Next episode: Fifty-Fifty


"Terrible Swift Sword" continues to escalate the notion that Jordan Collier is Christ. In addition to his leadership role and the apostelic presence of such figures as Shawn Farrell, Kevin Burkhoff, Richard Tyler, Tess Doerner, Kyle Barldwin and so forth, each with his/her own specific individual role amid the collective pursuits of the 4400, is a nicely framed shot of our Jesus figure (see above). The ripples in the water form a distinct halo, and the moon/planet looming overhead separates him from the Earth, while in the surrounding skies we notice a heavenly glow. Finally, behind Collier are three plaques, one of them in the shape of a pyramid; three plaques and a pyramid point directly to the concept of a trinity. And I haven't even mentioned that Collier looks like a conventional Jesus figure. It is appropriate that someone who once donned expensive suits and ties, and who later wandered the country in the habits of a hobo, has now merged the two and settled into the style of a clean-cut bearded dude dressed in the comfy yet nonetheless stylish jumpsuit that is not defined by any particular class. In fact, he's dressed like a senior citizen, but one who can afford the better brands.

The episode's title is from Julia Ward Howe's 1861 "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which links the American Civil War with the final biblical apocalypse. This title is an appropriate capsule for the episode, which deals with a global civil war that is the biblical apocalypse. The plot is launched on the premise that the NTAC night shift took a collective nap while the captured members of the Nova group walk out of their maximum security cells. The initial assumption is that the Nova group is being reassembled, but the viewer is given (and expects) that instead the release is part of Collier's great plan.

The re-introduction of impersonator Boyd Gelder is a welcome addition to the story-line, and there is a well rendered scene with a twist as we are witness to an unusual flirtatious moment between JC and the beautiful Devon (played by the beautiful Jody Thompson) transform into something entirely different.

It's this Devon/Gelder scene that plunges us into yet another interesting character switcheroo, yet one an a psychological level. Once a vehement anti-Collier forerunner, Richard Tyler's loyalties are slipping from recent confidant Shawn and toward Collier himself and his greater purpose. Conversely, Shawn was once Collier's right hand and has always looked up to and admired him. The recent alliance between Shawn and Richard against Richard's own daughter Isabelle was the better portion of an otherwise often irritating plot-line. This duo took shape conveniently during Collier's absence, and now the two men, both presented throughout the series as upholders of basic moral good, are on opposite ground, at either end of the ambiguously moral Collier spectrum. This character parade is among the better conceived and played out portions of the series.

With the growing tensions of the 4400 situation, the previously interesting Diane/April/Ben triangle is diminished due to its small scale nature. To quote the great American prophet Rick Blaine: "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." In light of the escalating threats of Armageddon, April and her heartache become almost irritating. The story-line is conveniently halted, which I approve of since it needed to be ended prior to the season finale, and because it needed to be done quickly so it doesn't usurp more time from the more interesting developments.


Another plot point that comes to an end is that of Kyle Baldwin. Now out of prison for killing Collier he is again set aside, this time with the purpose to extend Collier's regime. I've always liked Kyle, and I sympathize with the notion of losing him a third time (as in a sidebar Tom is struggling with the thought of losing him again: first through a coma, then through prison, and now through recruitment). There is an efficient and important moment of forgiveness between JC and Kyle that essentially shuts the door on the latter character and if we do meet him in season four it will likely be incidental.

(Kyle has helped to prove how my counting of 4400 members is pointless. For one thing, he was always number 4401 as he was the intended target for the spot that Shawn took. Though Shawn was taken in his place and enhanced with healing powers, Kyle nonetheless managed to become enhanced as well, and has hence always been a member of the 4400. In addition to Kyle, we will soon realize the vastness of 4400 expansion.)

Another recently returned character proves her necessity as a plot progression device. The not always interesting Alana Mareva appears to have returned so that Tom can have someone to privately vent his frustrations with (so the audience can eavesdrop) and receive emotional support, and to cook penne arabiata (so she claims). Yet really she is here to help plot progression. We are presented with the fascinating mystery of how did the NTAC night staff fall into communal platonic sleep while the former Nova members walked out of their cells. Instead of having our officers investigate and figure it out, we have former 4400 Centre instructor pop up with how she had a student who was able to alter oxygen levels in the blood. Must've been him. Mystery solved let's move on toward the finale.

The episode has among the strongest finishes we've yet scene, and plot aside, there is a strong element of unity among the more interesting 4400 members, which is strengthened by Shawn's own return to the Collier school of thought. Also good set-up for the fourth season.





Thursday, April 30, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January 1969


Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 1, Richard E. Decker, publisher, Ernest M. Hutter, editor, January 1969. 160 pages

AHMM January 1969 at Goodreads

Overall: 6/10

Other AHMM issues reviewed:
AHMM, July 1965
AHMM, April 1964

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's site.

(Note that I will be adding more photos shortly, or creating a separate post.)

The January 1969 issue of AHMM replaces the usual "Alfred Hitchcock" introduction with a colourful "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year." Moreover, the usual signature at the end of each story (at least when there's space to print it) is now encircled by a yuletide wreath. Moreover, inside is a full page subscription offer at the "Christmas Gift Rate" of $6.00 (which I can't place in proper context as I was not yet alive). I can, however, compare it to the current annual subscription rate of $34.97 USD (or $49.97 if, like me, you live in a foreign land). That is quite the Chritmas Gift Rate, and I'm tempted to fill it out and send it in to see the response, but I wouldn't want to damage the (browning) issue and certainly not that page add printed all in (of course) green.

Overall the issue is quite good with only one flop (Edwin P. Hicks's "Chaviski's Christmas"), and while there are no spectacular stories, there are some good ones. My favourite is Jack Ritchie's "Dropout" (though I tend to be partial to his shorts), but I also like those by Richard Deming, Miel Tanburn and the issue's novelette by Ed Lacy. What highlights this issue is the variety: two quick shorts with surprise endings, some private investigators, criminal protagonists, some humour, a serial killer and even a UFO.


"A Born Killer" by Max Van Derveer. 5/10

Peter Holiday is a born killer, literally, despite a strong affinity to dogs and children. He discovered this killing ability while a soldier in Vietnam, yet now that he is back on peaceful U.S. soil, in his multi-million-dollar estate, his need to kill hasn't evaporated, and he is overwhelmed with boredom and restlessness. Fellow soldier Larry Pole locates Holiday at home, telling him he had always been aware of his need to kill, and convinces Holiday to kill a man Pole claims to have abused his daughter. Holiday agrees, and things proceed with less direction than one would expect. With the somewhat lame ending I was left wondering why there were so many plot elements. It's not a bad story, especially with a plot progression not at all predictable, but for a slightly longer story that was so involved in its character, it needed better direction and a better finish; what we get is almost a punchline, and not a satisfying one.

Van Derveer's story "The Kidnappers," from AHMM July 1965, is better, and is reviewed here.


"Holiday" by Hal Ellson. 5/10

This story's title is also the name of the protagonist in the previous story. (The next story, however, is not titled Peters.) Roger Peters is on holiday seeking some prescribed rest, but instead wallows in an incredibly hot climate where the men are many and predatory. At the resort he encounters the beautiful and seemingly elusive Miss Boyd, who quickly traps him into taking her to a dance club. Eventually, while dancing with one of her many pursuers, she disappears, and Roger feels responsible for her well being. A short story that takes too long in getting anywhere, and ends in a kind of joke. Some interesting sentence work to keep the attention, but lacking in most areas.


"Chaviski's Christmas" by Edwin P. Hicks. 4/10

Retired former chief of detectives Joe Chaviski shows up at the station on Christmas Eve hoping to replace an officer as a means to end the boredom of his lonely life. Given the chance he soon ends up involved in a minor case of stolen presents, which escalates into something far greater. I suppose we need a holiday story, especially after the first two involved a sunny locale and a psycho killer. "Chaviski's Christmas" is too obvious both in plot and intention, and the humour does not work. I suppose using props as dated as explosive cigars doesn't help, but neither do the saccharin elements.


"Dropout" by Jack Ritchie. 7/10

A small town sheriff drags an out-of-town lawyer to help in recording the confession of a safe-cracker the police have just caught. The authorities are concerned that if they don't take care of the thief's rights and act by the book, his case will be rejected by the court. Jack Ritchie is among the most reliable of mystery short story authors of the 1960s and 70s, and this story does not disappoint. Though written with humourous intentions, there is nonetheless more to the story than at first expected.

Interestingly, this story is similar to Talmage Powell's "The Privileges of Crime" which appeared in AHMM March 1967 (and included in the anthology Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Be Read with Caution, which I review here). Evidently the human rights movement affected all facets of society, and left behind are satirical pieces of pulp fiction toying with notions of the rights of obvious criminals. I'm certainly no expert in the history of criminal law in the US, so perhaps there is more to this trend than awareness of civil rights, such as the historical case of Miranda v. Arizona of 1966.

Others by Jatck Ritchie include "That Russian!" and "Silence is Gold."


"The Guide's Story" by Dion Henderson. 5/10

Snowed out on the first big day of hunting season, men gather in a local eatery and discuss the bank robbery that morning while state police investig
ate. Expert guide and wisecracker Joe Grignon has his own theory as to how the robbery might have been done. Amusing story with some humour that works, though the mystery is not so mysterious and the suspense is lacking. There is discussion on the possibilities of crimes committed on hunting day, from stray bullets to pre-sold deer carcasses, yet this story focuses instead on a bank robbery. Of course the crime is tied to the bustling day of hunting and the stalling affects of a snow day, but the story is more telling of its character than of its crime. Grignon is the focus, his expert guide skills, knowledge of the area and its people, and his humour that essentially elevates him above the townsfolk, the visiting hunter tourists and the state police.


"The Man in the Chair" by Clayton Matthews. 6/10

A small town is visited by a shady city character who settles at the barber shop for information, and soon begins to extort the local shop owners for protection money. But when he tries to take the barber's son under his wing, tensions begin to brew. Another straightforward story focusing on character, as the townsfolk outweigh the plot. This one is narrated by Jed's companion who is conveniently present at the important moments (he does hang out at the barbershop after all), and who has a special understanding of what is transpiring. There is a minor twist at the end, but it is more of a semi-twist and does not interfere or alter the plot progression, though it does elevate a certain point, and helps to assure us that the victor in the battle of character is truly victorious.


"Compromised Confessional" by Margaret E. Brown. 5/10

Two men attempt to extort the members of St. Jerome's church via the church confessional. Lt. Kelly and partner Peter Swenson investigate. An interesting idea not too well delivered as the shift from criminals to police is unnecessary, and the story could have been presented solely through the police point of view. (Alternately, the story could also have been presented solely through the criminal point of view, but would not have been as interesting with the actual outcome.) Author Brown most likely wanted to


"Night Strike" by Miel Tanburn. 6/10

A very short story in which one older man convinces another to commit a random act of murder. Retired loner first-person narrator visits the library to read about history's greats, and on one of those visits he meets Meltzer, a man who gains the sense of power through murder. He claims to have killed several people, all strangers with no connection to him, and each time careful not to leave clued. Wanting also to gain some sense of power, Our protagonist is curious to attempt the deed. Appropriately short and energetic, the story has a nice little twist. It's brevity and speed is what makes the little twist work.


"Money Tree" by Jamie Sandaval. 5/10

Confident and intimidating Taps Enderman arrives at the Carstairs Manufacturing Company one afternoon and forces a manager to write him a cheque out to cash.

I was left unaffected by the twist ending, though the progression was quite good. Unfortunately the dated language, occasionally awkward dialogue and sexism (despite it being a part of the dis-likable Taps) weaken the short piece.


"Highly Recommended" by Michael Brett. 6/10

Aging mobster Harry Grant visits hitman extraordinaire Darbash with a proposal to do away with an arrogant fellow mobster. Though Darbash's fees are incredibly high, his skill and ability to take down targets without awakening suspicion toward the victim are enough for Grant and others to continue hiring him. A good little piece that implicates the entire crime scene in a never-ending loop of distrust and extermination.


"Favor" by Stephen Wasylyk. 5/10

Lawyer John Stoneman receives a reliable tip that a former air force buddy who runs a small airfield is being targeted. Since the old buddy saved his life during the war, he feels compelled to help, and his investigation brings him to a much wanted criminal. Not a bad concept with the way it wraps up, but too conveniently plotted.


"A Name in the Phone Book" by Erlene Hubly. 6/10

In good fun shortly before the holidays, a young couple pull a prank by sending Ferd Lumpp, the funniest name in the phone book, a Christmas greeting with the note, "Remember Miami?" Little do they know that this seemingly nonsensical question means quite a bit to Ferd, who is determined to seek out the pair of strangers.


What we expect will happen does happen, yet the story, devoid of any twist, works well in its structure and doesn't require a twist. If we expect one we will be disappointed, but I can't imagine anyone expecting something other than what we're given. The tragedy and sense of absurdity are present and welcome in a way we don't often encounter in such brief tales. The lives of the young couple, Jonathan in Law school and Patricia at home waiting to be married, contrast well with Ferd's mid-life isolation. Though we know little of Ferd's personality, we do manage to sympathize, and this is the result of the author's great decision to have Patricia feel guilty for their prank, and her small tokens of friendliness toward the friendless Ferd, who will never know of her kind gestures. A good, solid read which manages, in its ten pages, to create some interesting characters.


"The Skim" by Richard Deming. 6/10

With this entry, Richard Deming plunges us into the back-story and plot so clearly and succinctly that he shows talent in the short form suspense story. Eddie Adamski works for brother-in-law Long Jake Attila selling numbers for an illegal lottery. While boss Attila is a cheapskate, wife Nancy spends more than he earns, and the stress of life with these two is sending Eddie over the edge. Until he and lover hazel plot to skim from the daily earnings Eddie brings back to Attila. A difficult task since Attila is so tight with money and so distrustful of everyone that his system is tight, with daily checks and thorough quarterly audits. Eddie nonetheless develops a skimming plan that will allow him and Hazel to flee with thousands just before the next quarterly.

A good story but a little too well plotted in the sense that the outcome is expected and even convenient. Things tie together too neatly yet that is also indicative of Demming's ability to weave together such a tightly contained little mystery. He was certainly one of the better and consistent regular contributors to AHMM at the time. There is a nice little touch in a minor detail, [spoiler alert] in that despite Eddie's horrible (deserved?) doom, he manages to ensure Hazel's safety, which elevates his character.


"Problem of Christmas" by Al Nussbaum. 6/10

A very short story with a twist. Travelling generator salesman George Dell is heading home to Chicago to his wife for Christmas ahead on an incoming storm. Once a wild and conniving womanizer salesman, through a colleague he discovered sincerity that led to better sales and a wife. The little twist is not the most original, though not expected (at least not by me), though as I've mentioned of other stories, this one's brevity (three pages) and quickness doesn't allow the reader to stop and consider the details. Quick and fun but certainly nothing earth-shattering.


"A Singular Quarry" by Ed Lacy. 6/10

Detective William Ash is hired to investigate the death of a man who has just made a fortune by selling the rarest of unflawed diamonds. His widow is convinced the death was murder, that her husband discovered the diamonds in a nearby quarry, and that there were aliens involved. Not the illegal aliens from across state lines, but those extraterrestrials from across space lines. An interesting minor science fiction mystery, highly enjoyable. Lacy is not troubled with mixing elements of sci-fi and detective mystery, which is great, though while I enjoy the mixing of genres, and I did genuinely enjoy this story, I'm not sure it was entirely necessary.






Thursday, April 2, 2015

William Hardy, Lady Killer (1956)

Hardy, William, Lady Killer, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957
______, Lady Killer, Dell [299], November 1958 (my edition, pictured)
______, Lady Killer, Penguin, 1961

Lady Killer at Goodreads
Lady Killer at IBList

Rating: 5/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

The 22 November 1957 edition of The Spectator blurbs that Lady Killer is a "readable" crime novel featuring "yet another mild-mannered man" in a work that adds "little to what Mr. Iles did, once and for all, in Malice Aforethought." I'm not familiar with Francis Iles's novel, though it appears to hold up well, while William Hardy's Lady Killer seems to have been immortalized in lukewarm a Spectator review blurb. In fact, I had to manually add the novel to Goodreads where it did not yet exist, though a small number of little-read Hardy works do (intermingling, incidentally, with other books written by other William Hardies).

In Lady Killer, mild-mannered Earl Borstleman decides, on his fortieth birthday to kill his wife. As a mathematician he feels he can, via the supreme logic afforded by his intellect, produce a perfect crime. With some pondering, both patient and impatient, he settles on a plan to confuse the crime amid others, to essentially kill five unrelated women in his college town, and insert wife into victim slot number three. Conveniently, a bright student, a recent returnee from the Korean War, would fit in nicely to take the fall for the crimes, and Prof. Borstleman could live happily in his little OCD world.

The flaws in the novel are numerous, yet as the reviewer of The Spectator pointed out over half a century ago, it is readable. Quick, somewhat enjoyable, somewhat interesting. Utterly flawed.

"It was a beautiful day, and the fear and ugliness back there had nothing to do with her or with Bob or with the world they lived in." (49) Korean War vet Bob Adams is haunted by his experiences in battle and harbours much anger toward the world. Evidently he witnessed the killing of a superior standing beside him, and is having difficulty coping. (Though he performs well in class and manages to date a pretty young classmate.) Unfortunately for him ugliness exists even in a small American college town (and this could have been a nice sidelong theme throughout the work), as he is soon to become the prime suspect in a series of killings. With the avowed logician Borstleman acting less than logical, you'd think Bob would have little to worry about, but author Hardy weaves the plot in such a way that the ugliness of this world is one made up of coincidence.

The problem with Borstleman's logic is plentiful. Though it is understood eventually that the killing is driving him loopy, his careful planning of the first murder is less than careful. He tells himself he mustn't do anything out of the ordinary, yet the night of the murder he invites two students to his home for coffee, which he hasn't done in many years. He tells himself to select five unrelated women to be his victims, and then chooses the department's secretary Emily Joyner as victim number one; though perhaps Joyner hasn't actually met Sarah Borstleman, the two are immediately linked to Earl himself. He tells himself to space out the murders, to commit one a month, and then kills landlady Nancy Miller a mere two weeks following the killing of Joyner, and then is impatient to do away with wife Sarah.

The greatest flaw, however, is believing that a man as obsessive compulsive, as neat and clean, as orderly as Borstleman would ever marry a woman such as Sarah. She smokes, is untidy, wears appalling house dresses, and overall grates on Earl for countless reasons. This topic is never approached.

And yet the novel does manage to be readable and somewhat enjoyable. The locale is well constructed and the scenes are quite visual. There is even some suspense in various parts. The novel begins well enough as we follow Borstleman planning and committing the first murder. Then the point of view shifts from a limited third person to complete omniscience, which is jarring just as we were made comfortable in Borstelman's skin. Moreover, with the shifts in point of view we experience shifts in tone, and Hardy includes some humour with the bumbling local police, which does not work one bit.

Readable, but there are enough readable works out there that I would not recommend it, and allow Lady Killer to live in two obscure reviews: The Spectator and at Casual Debris.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

The 4400: The Gospel According to Collier

The Gospel According to Collier (episode 3.10)
Directed by Frederick E.O. Toye (Fred Toye)
Written by Ian Steven Behr & Craig Sweeny, story by Adam Levy
Guest starring Brennan Elliott, Tom McBeath
First aired 13 August 2006
Rating 5/10

Previous episode: The Starzl Mutation
Next episode: Terrible Swift Sword


The much anticipated return of Jordan Collier is highlighted by a lackluster episode. The previous entry ended with the exciting appearance of Collier at the dreaded Isabelle/Shawn nuptials, only to be followed up with standard fare. The episode plays out as though it was laid out on a belt line and moved along mechanically, picking up the requisite plot points along the way.

One problem is that the episode crams encyclopedic forty-four hundred mythos elements into forty-four minutes, important elements that could have better suited two episodes, or to have been initially developed over earlier episodes. Or over forty-four hundred minutes. Collier is here firmly established as a prophet helping to bring about Armageddon.

I've previously discussed Collier's association with Jesus Christ, as alluded to by his name. His connection to biblical prophets is distinctly clear via this episode's title, "The Gospel According to Collier," and the journey laid out for Collier. According to Matthew's gospel (and incidentally we'll recall that Isabelle killed Collier's Matthew), Christ spent forty nights in the wilderness, and we learn that Collier's death sent him on a journey throughout the urban U.S. wilderness spewing his prophesies and gaining loyal followers. His congregation was made up of the homeless and destitute, yet they believed so much in the man that they called him "The Prophet," and artists painted massive murals of the man all across the country. Rather than cramming all these details alongside his actual return and the ensuing ripple effect, his appearances could have at least been alluded to earlier so that the episode needn't devote so much time to this line of investigation, and focus more on the effects of his return. I understand a summer show with only thirteen episodes is limited in content compared to year-long shows, but we really didn't need the episode "Graduation Day."

A problem with the wandering prophet account is that the vast likenesses of a man as renowned as Collier would no doubt have come to the attention of NTAC of the 4400 Centre. Regardless that his following was restricted to the destitute, the frequently ignored, all those paintings of him all across the country and stored on an online database should have alerted either national security or the talents of the 4400.


Now he has returned to the 4400 Centre, and soon to visit his killer Kyle Baldwin in prison in an attempt to know who he is. The logic here is unfortunately lacking. He does not recall who he is and yet appears at Isabelle and Shawn's wedding calling out to Shawn Farrell. While it is possible he came across a link between himself and Shawn, the way he seemed to stumble upon an old news article linking himself to Kyle, why does he flee as soon as he calls out to Shawn if he visits the centre to discover his identity, or confirm it is JC? I place particular emphasis on the confirming JC detail since he must suspect he is Jordan Collier as he hides out in one of Collier's own empty houses (an important plot detail to bring NTAC to his nutty vision-filled journal). Moreover, why does he not simply wait for the sought-after confirmation from Shawn and instead make his way to prison for an interview with Kyle? When there, since he has already linked himself back to his life as Jordan Collier, living in his house and crashing the wedding of the century at his own centre, why would he ask an unknowing guard when Kyle yells out his name, "Is that who I am?" And would prison security allow a man who looks such as mess as Collier does into the government facility to chat with a convicted assassin?

Yet it is the ease along which everything transpires that leads me to the word lackluster, as in lacking in vitality (not in brightness). Rather than surging forth with tension and anticipation, everything pieces itself together so easily and so conveniently you'd think NTAC was trapped in an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Tom manages to get Alana back as her help is invaluable (so we're led to believe, though her involvement is kind of neat), and Kyle is released from prison seemingly overnight, though he committed crimes other than murder, such as bearing illegal firearms, discharging them in public, and intent to kill. Even Isabelle forgives Shawn so simply when he flees their wedding, though it was the only purpose she seemed to have aside from producing promicen for Ryland.

And finally, to cap off the lack of luster, Isabelle apologizes to Collier for her involvement in his death, and he tells her no one wants her so she should leave, and she leaves. (Had I known that was all it took to get rid of her, I would have told her to go when she was still a baby.)

Though Alana has returned, seemingly for good, while appearing to have left the more interesting Gary Navaro behind, Kyle's return is welcome, as he was among my favourite characters in the show's initial season; hopefully he will be well utilized and not just tossed aside with an occasional cameo.

Another returned 4400 character, though she never left but has lately been unfortunately under-utilized, is Maia. With the re-appearance of Diana's sister April comes sensitive yet studly photographer Ben Saunders (finely played by Albertan Brennan Elliott). Surprisingly, Diana has a love interest, and more surprisingly, it is the more interestingly developed plot of the episode. April re-appears unexpectedly with Ben, and Maia dutifully informs her mother that she will be marrying her sister's boyfriend. Things develop nicely, with affection quickly growing between the two, and as expected the two hook up, and Diana hides their developing relationship as April cries heartbroken in her apartment. The story-line works as the chemistry between the two actors is solid, and Jacqueline McKenzie as Diana plays the falling in love part quite nicely.




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