Posted by: Mark | July 19, 2019

Cauldron of Blood

Whatever I thought of “Medusa’s Coil,” it wrapped up my 17th Resolution, meaning I have to do two mini- resolutions before started the 18th (stupid rules I made up that seemed good at the time). Fortunately, I’m already done with one and almost done with the other.

One of the mini-resolutions was to watch a Boris Karloff movie that I’ve never seen before and I checked out Cauldron of Blood aka Bind Man’s Bluff.

Karloff was good. The rest of the movie not so much.

The movie begins with opening credits that must have been cutting edge for their time (many other reviews gush over them) but are outdated now. They look like the fonts and effects that I used to use on public access in the 90s. Based on the other reviews, results may vary but, even if you liked the credits, they didn’t mesh with the rest of the movie

The production values were a definite weakness. Special effects of lightning looked like a 1950s serial or a Sid and Marty Krofft production. The audio levels were wildly uneven, mixing loud background music with soft dialogue. The audio levels would suddenly shoot up or down (maybe it was the fault of the DVD). Even at the right level, the background music was inappropriate. It took me a while to place it but it is the same as what was used in Star Trek: the Animated Series.

The direction of photography was good but couldn’t overcome bad directing and worse editing.

The film was shot in Spain and it looks beautiful. The interior shots are gorgeous, even the over-the-top dungeon. It used many shots of animals and the ocean. These looked good but slowed down the pacing.

The pacing needed help–some scenes were cut too quickly and others lingered uncomfortably. For a short film, it had a lot of running and dancing that felt like padding.

The most annoying character was a drunk who was supposed to be funny but seems like he rolled out of a slow, boring sexual harrassment PSA. Eventually he is killed by a dart (the play kind found in bars) and is hung in meat locker. He was not missed.

It ends with Boris Karloff’s blind character fighting his evil wife to the death. “Just remember that you are blind,” she taunts him. I’m pretty sure he would remember that.

After accidentally sticking her hand in acid, it is immediately reduced to bones that somehow hold together without the help of ligaments. She dies and Karloff either jumps or falls off a cliff. The End.

If you need to finish a resolution quickly, this isn’t the worse movie of all times but unless you’re a Karloff completionist, this probably isn’t worth your time.

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Posted by: Mark | July 18, 2019

Medusa’s Coil

One of the oldest chiches in horror is the fool who goes where he knows he shouldn’t. Whether it be the dark cellar or reaching for knowledge best reserved for God, protagonist after protagonist is plunged into death and madness.

I’d heard for years that H.P. Lovecraft’s “Medusa’s Coil” was his worst and most racist story. Then I needed one of his stories to finish Resolution 17. “How bad can it be?” I thought.

The story begins with a traveling New Englander who stops at a plantation in Missouri. Okay, Lovecraft set stories in Kentucky and while he didn’t seem to have ever seen the Commonwealth, the setting never did serious damage to those stories (a Kentucky setting was essential for “The Beast in the Cave”).

A plantation in Missouri didn’t come off as authentic or necessary. It did open the door for extra layers of racism.

The traveling Yankee gets an earful from the plantation owner. His son had been an artist and had married a strange woman names Marceline. After Marceline’s true nature was captured in a painting (shades of Dorian Gray), she is revealed to be a monster, leading to death and destruction. Her hair was a death-dealing monstrosity with a will of its own, the source of the legend of Medusa.

When the plantation owner shows the Yankee the painting, he can’t help but shoot it, triggering Marceline’s hair to crawl up from the pit. The Yank barely escapes as the plantation goes up in flames. Miles away, he stops to talk to some locals who tell him that the plantation burnt down years ago, meaning, of course, that Large Marge is a ghost.

If the story had ended there, it wouldn’t have been so bad. There were racist elements but no worse than the output of Lovecraft’s contemporaries (I just read a Sherlock Holmes story that mentioned “Jew brokers”).

But, like me, H.P. didn’t know when to quit. Literally the last sentence concludes that Marceline was so bad because she was secretly–wait for it–“a negress.”

Why?

Lovecraft already ended with a twist that the plantation owner and the plantation itself were ghosts (and I do give him credit for the concept of a ghost building).

The final racist jab didn’t even make sense. If Marceline inspired the legend of Medusa, she should have been Greek. This is racism on what Captain Kirk would refer to as the Double Dumb Ass Level.

A few posts back, I think I was right to feel uncomfortable with Bram Stoker’s use of the word “squaw” but Lovecraft makes Stoker almost seem PC.

Lovecraft co-wrote the story with Zealia Brown-Reed Bishop. I have no idea which of them is more to blame. Some of Lovecraft’s collaborations, notably with Kenneth J. Sterling, were much more progressive than Lovecraft solo work. Maybe I should blame Bishop.

Whoever is at fault, I strongly recommend against “Medusa’s Coil.” It does have good elements but the ending ruins them.

Posted by: Mark | July 17, 2019

Pigeons from Hell

I had a single story by Robert E. Howard for my resolution so I decided to find the story that critics say was his best–“Pigeons from Hell.”

Some creatures generate fear–rats, snakes, sharks, bedbugs–but pigeons just don’t seem threatening. I was a little skeptical.

It turned out that this is the best story of Howard’s that I’ve ever read. Stephen King listed it as one of the greatest horror story of all times and who am I to argue?

The last time I read Howard, I was surprised that his stories were more racist than Lovecraft’s. “Pigeons from Hell” is set in the Deep South and involves Voodoo and its practitioners. It could have been deeply offensive but avoided most potential issues. It could be published today with only a handful of changes in diction.

The ultimate horror in the story is a zuvembie. I knew I’d read that word before but couldn’t remember where. Thanks to Google, I now know it was the term that Marvel Comics used because the Comics Code forbid any mention of zombies.

The structure of the story is what struck me the most. Howard was a prolific writer and often was formulaic. “Pigeons from Hell” isn’t exactly James Joyce but it’s different from any other of Howard’s stories.

All in all, I made a mistake in not reading this earlier–it’s Howard’s best.

Posted by: Mark | July 16, 2019

Crooken Sands

When I was young, I thought quicksand would be a major obstacle when I grew up. It turns out that quicksand isn’t so dangerous after all.

Nobody told this to Bram Stoker so his characters lived in mortal fear of it.

In “Crooken Sands,” a father of a large English family visits Scotland and does some cultural appropriation (this may be the earliest story involving it). He insists on wearing traditional Scottish clothing which earns him the scorn of a local nut. He’s cursed that he will meet his double before succumbing to quicksand. Instead his double sinks in the sand and he survives the supernatural encounter. But was it supernatural? (Answer: no.)

This story wasn’t horror so much as suspense. Stoker did a great job in describing the Scottish countryside, making it somewhat of a travel piece as well.

The twist ending did turn the narrative on its head but without his name on it, no one would guess this was from the author of Dracula.

This was the last story of Stoker’s of this resolution. “Crooken Sands” was an odd story but it added to Stoker’s range.

Posted by: Mark | July 16, 2019

The Burial of Rats

Depending on which statistic you believe, one out of every two people who dies of venomous snake bite is in India. That’s easier to accept if you realize that one out of every seven people is in India and large areas of the rest of the world are snake-free.

You’d think people in India would hate snakes but many of them, especially cobras, are revered. That seems strange until you do the math and see that snakes save more Indians than they kill. Because snakes love to eat rats, they keep rodents from spreading diseases and destroying food supplies. As scary as cobras may be, rats are more dangerous.

Many horror writers have portrayed rats as monsters. Bram Stoker used them as incidental monsters in “The Burial of the Rats.”

In the story, a young Englishman wanders into a bad area in France and is trapped by degenerates. They chase him for page after page until he finally escapes. In the end, the matriarch of the group is found, eaten down to a skeleton by hungry rats.

Realistically, rats would never do that unless they were isolated and starved before given the body. Dogs, cats, and other humans would do the same thing if treated so. Still Stoker does make the beady-eyed rats creepy and suspenseful.

One thing that makes the story more palatable is that Stoker doesn’t use minorities as the degenerate evil people as Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard often did. However, most of the human monsters are explicitly presented as homeless veterans which still feels cringy. I can’t say for sure but I bet this anti-veteran sentiment would be more controversial in mainstream America today than the racism in other stories. I wonder what readers will think of them in another 100 years or so.

All in all, nobody’s going to remember this story before Dracula but it does create the atmosphere that Stoker did so well in Dracula. For fans of Stoker’s vampire work, this might be a good story to read to get a feel for his range.

Posted by: Mark | July 15, 2019

Resolution Update 28

Not the worst of weeks but still far behind goal.

1. Run 365 miles: 0.0 on the elliptical machine and 0.0 on the treadmill, for 32.9 miles overall.

2. 3,000 push ups: 180. No change again for 19 weeks.

3. Lose 15 pounds: didn’t check again.

4. Send out 100 resumes: 11 but I almost certainly have a new job.

5. Send out 100 manuscripts: 36.

6. Write 40,000 words and five new stories: 18,980 words and seven stories.

7. Support 12 local artists: two (Nathan Singer and Katherine Wynter). No change.

8. Read ten new H.P. Lovecraft stories: Complete:

“The Rats in the Walls,”
“The Thing on the Doorstep,”
“In the Vault,”
“Arthur Jermyn,”
“Herbert West: Re-Animator,”
“He,”
“The Lurking Fear,”
“The Tomb,”
“The Transition of Juan Romero,” and
“The Shunned House.”

9. Read 15 works: Complete:

War with the Newts by Karel Capek,
Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill,
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh,
The Godfather by Mario Puzo,
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Self-Tormentor by Terence,
The Eunuch by Terrence,
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett,
Phormio by Terence,
The Woman of Andros by Terence,
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
The Trial by Franz Kafka.

10. 400 blog posts: including this one, 232.

10a. Read five chapters of the Bible: Complete–chapters one through five of Lamentations.

10b. Read a book of the Bible: Complete–Obadiah (the shortest book in the Old Testament)

11. Read 10 more of Lovecraft’s stories: Complete:

“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,”
“Poetry and the Gods,”
“In the walls of Eryx,”
“The Temple,”
“The Crawling Chaos,”
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,
“Ibid,”
“The Green Meadow,”
“The Nameless City” and
“The Call of Cthulhu.”

11a. Finish another book from the Bible. Complete – Book of Revelation.

11b. Finish a third book from the Bible. Complete – Third Book of Maccabees.

12. Reread 20 stories of Poe. Complete:

The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Psfaall,
The Balloon Hoax,
Von Kemplelen and his Discovery,
Mesmeric Revelation,
The 1,002nd Tale of Scheherazade,
MS. Found in a Bottle,
The Mystery of Marie Roget,
The Premature Burial,
The Island of the Fay,
The Oval Portrait,
The Assignation,
The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.,
How to Write a Blackwood Article,
A Predicament,
X-ing a Paragrab,
Diddling,
Angel of the Odd,
Mellonta Tauta, and
Loss of Breath.

12a. Read at least 10 chapters from the Bible. Complete – Ecclesiastes.

12b. Read another book from the Bible. Complete – the Book of Joel.

13. Read ten short stories of Robert E. Howard. Complete.

Casonnetto’s Last Song,
Dermod’s Bane,
The Hyena,
The Dream Snake,
The Cobra in the Dream,
The People of the Black Coast,
Dig Me No Grave,
The Cairn on the Headland,
The Haunter of the Ring, and
People of the Night.

13a. Read a non-Biblical sacred text. Complete–Kama Sutra, Part I

13b. Read another non-Biblical sacred text. Complete–Kama Sutra, Part II.

14. Read Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Complete.

14a. Read a non-Biblical sacred text. Complete–Kama Sutra, Part III

14b. Read another non-Biblical sacred text. Complete–Kama Sutra, Part IV.

15. Read another 20 stories of Poe. Complete.

The Business Man.
Maelzel’s Chess-Player.
The Power of Words.
Colloquy of Monos and Una.
The Man in the Crowd.
Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.
Shadow–a Parable.
Silence–a Fable.
Philosophy of Furniture.
Tale of Jerusalem.
Thou Art the Man.
Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling.
Bon-Bon.
Review of Stephen’s “Arabia Petrea.”
Magazine-Writing–Peter Snook.
Astoria.
The Domain of Arnheim or The Landscape Garden.
Landor’s Cottage
The Quacks of Helicon–a Satire.
William Wilson.

15a. Read a non-Biblical sacred text. Complete–Kama Sutra, Part V.

15b. Read another non-Biblical sacred text. Complete–Kama Sutra, Part VI.

16. Read Snow Crash. Complete.

16a. Read another non-Biblical sacred text. Complete–Kama Sutra, Part VII.

16b. Read a a book of the Bible. Complete–Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.

17. Read (or re-read) 20 stories by Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Bram Stoker. 16:

Poe’s:

Berenice,
Eleonara,
Ligeia,
Morella,
Metzengerstein,
A Tale of the Ragged Mountain,
The Spectacles,
The Duc De L Omelette,
The Oblong Box,
King Pest,
Three Sundays in a Week,
Devil in the Belfry,
Lioning.

Stoker’s:

The Invisible Giant,
The Star Trap,
The Squaw.

Posted by: Mark | July 14, 2019

The Squaw

Before this resolution, I knew four stories by Bram Stoker: Dracula (which I read decades ago), Lair of the White Worm (which I’d like to read), “Dracula’s Guest” (which I’ve read a few times) , and a killer cat story that I read through a graphic novel adaptation. When I picked up the Bram Stoker story collection, I was disappointed that there was no story with “Cat” in the title. Then I read “The Squaw”. . .

It’s about British newlyweds who befriend an American stereotype while vacationing to Tortureburg, Germany. The late, great Stan Lee was accused of making Doctor Doom’s Latveria over the top but Stoker’s descriptions make Marvel seem restrained.

The narrative kicks into gear when the American looks over a high wall sees a mother cat playing with its kitten far below. Being an idiot, the American decides it would be funny to drop a rock next to them. The rock lands on the kitten’s head, splattering brains everywhere.

The mother cat is out for revenge a la the shark in Jaws IV. The American thinks this is amusing and compares her to a “squaw” he once killed.

Next the group decides to visit a torture museum with working instruments of death (foreshadowing). The American gets inside an iron maiden (foreshadowing) which has to be pulled open because it automatically snaps shut (more foreshadowing). The American also has his hands and legs tied together (even more) even though the vengeful cat is spotted inside the museum (you’ll never guess what happens). As the museum curator is struggling to keep the iron maiden from snapping shut (never in a million years), the cat jumps on his face so he lets go. The jaws of the deadly torture device slammed together, killing the American as no one would have seen coming. The British husband grabs a sword and slices the cat in two.

This is a story that was much improved by its adaptation. The original sets up the ending so clearly that he didn’t need to write it. If he had ended with the cat leaping at the curator, the outcome would have been obvious.

Also Stoker went to such pains to portray the American as a jerk that killing the momma cat in the end seems unfair. If the American had been more sympathetic, it would have seen warranted but otherwise the cat should have got away.

All in all, this is a story that is better in retelling. I know Stoker was trying to build suspense but he took it so far that it became silly.

The word “squaw” is considered a racial slur to some but inoffensive to others. I don’t have the qualifications to say for sure but the usage in Stoker’s story made me decide never to use it except in discussions of the word itself or as part of a title.

Posted by: Mark | July 13, 2019

The Star Trap

As titles go, “The Star Trap” grabbed my attention from the moment I picked up Bram Stoker’s story collection. I read “The Invisible Giant” first but all the while, in the back of my mind, I wondered what was a star trap. Something that could snuff out a sun? Something that caught meteorites? I hoped the title wasn’t referring to actors.

It wasn’t and yet the story was about actors and the theater.

An old stagehand told a group the tale of what had happened when he was young. He’d worked for an elderly stage carpenter who had a young and lovely wife. All was well until a young, handsome performer joined the theater and the old man’s wife began an affair.

The old man didn’t seem to catch on. In fact he agreedto build a star trap for his wife’s lover to use on stage. The trap malfunctioned, killing the lover before the wife’s eyes. The narrator found an odd piece of the shattered trap but didn’t have a chance to show anyone.

Authorities examined the wreckage and declared that everything looked as if it had been constructed correctly so the death was just a tragic accident. The narrator later realized that the piece he had found proved the old man had intentionally murdered the lover.

The kicker was that the group the narrator told his story didn’t believe it, thinking he was just spinning tales. That made the story more murky and twisted, ending on a strong note.

My biggest problem was that I still didn’t know exactly what a star trap was. It seemed like it shot out a performer like a cannon but the lover hadn’t been a human cannonball act.

Later I found that a star trap is a stage device that rockets a performer from below the stage, up through a trap door, so to appear from nowhere. Not completely understanding didn’t ruin the story but considering how much I fixated on what a star trap was, not knowing did bother me.

Otherwise it was a decent revenge story in the vein of EC comics. The use of Victorian slang gave it flavor but also could get confusing.

Most writers couldn’t pull off a story with such a common plot but Stoker’s style made it work for me.

For readers educated in late 19th century British slang and theater construction, this is a fantastic story. For others, it might be rough, but still a chance to experience more of Stoker than Dracula.

Posted by: Mark | July 12, 2019

The Invisible Giant

I’m done with Poe but still need a few more stories to round up to 20. The first one is “The Invisible Giant” by Bram Stoker.

Poe never gets all the credit he is due. People just remember the scary stuff, ignoring the bulk of his output. Bram Stoker has it even worse. How many people remember him for his short stories instead of that vampire novel?

“The Invisible Giant” is written as a fairy tale but it’s clear from the beginning that it’s not an old one. Poe is probably the only writer who could have made a convincing old-style fairy tale. . . although he didn’t really try.

Tolkien couldn’t quite do it, Stoker couldn’t quite, God knows I can’t but “The Invisible Giant” still is a compelling story–it’s just if you published it between Grimm and Anderson, readers would immediately know which was different.

At first I thought Stoker was going in the direction of Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” but he shifted course early on. Their writing styles in the two stories are still close.

The angelic main character is almost a Disney protagonist. She can speak to birds, her parents are dead, and only she is kind to the poor, old man outside town.

She is the only one able to see the giant that approaches the town. Her warnings are ignored and she is bullied by the disbelieving jerks. Tables turn when the giant arrives in town, a giant named Plague.

As disease wipes out the populace, the girl and old man try frantically to help. It’s not until the old man dies as the giant’s last victim that Plague finally departs.

However, the wise old man cements his position as a predecessor of Gandalf/Obi Kenobi/Dumbledore by speaking to the girl after death, making the ending more bittersweet than tragic.

It’s not a bad story but, because it reminded me of “The Selfish Giant” from the start, I couldn’t help but think that Wilde’s story was better. His good character isn’t just Christ-like, it turns out he’s really Christ.

For someone who would like a modern fairy tale that isn’t quite so religious, “The Invisible Giant” certainly has its charms.

It does not have any vampires which will probably disappoint most of the readers who actually read it today.

Posted by: Mark | July 11, 2019

Lionizing

Here’s the final Poe Post! Months ago when I checked out The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, I was surprised how many stories I couldn’t remember and wasn’t sure if I would have time to re-read them all. Thanks to the debilitating effects of chemo, I’ve done nothing all year but sit around, reading and eating. Just before he died of a stroke, my grandfather was scheduled to have his legs amputated due to health reasons. They could do that to me and the only difference in my life would be I wouldn’t need socks.

Well, enough of my rant, here’s Poe’s story about experts on noses.

Did I Remember It? Not at all.

What’s It About? After a baby grabs his own nose, he becomes a famous expert in nose-ology. As such experts so often are, he became world-famous and revered. . . until he agrees to a duel and shoots off his rival’s nose.

Did Poe Stutter? He satirized fads and pseudo-intellectuals in other works and “William Wilson” and “Mystification” were anti-dueling. The nose fixation–wow, Poe’s got your nose! I would read a whole novel about that.

My life feels empty without more Poe to look forward to. It felt like cheating to even make this a resolution. It was like resolving to eat a whole lot of ice cream which, of course, I did.

I guess there’s his poetry. I’ll think about that.

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