Saturday, December 31, 2022

Noiry New Year! FOXy Film Noir: The FOX Film Noir Series, 2005-2008

Between 2005 and 2008 entertainment conglomerate Twentieth-Century Fox released 26 DVDs in its so-called Film Noir Series.  I bought a bunch of these over the years.  And while DVDs may be old hat now, I still love them like I love actual books!  

The titles and original dates of the films in this interesting series are given below, in the the order they were issued.

I guess you can't blame FOX for starting as its big #1 entry with the classic mystery film Laura, based on the Vera Caspary novel, but ironically it's one of the least "noiry" ones in the bunch!  Sure, Gene Tierney's Laura is suspected of murder (after the cops realize she isn't the victim) and Dana Andrews plays a great tough, deadpan police detective smitten by love, but the film is a sophisticated manners mystery in essence, rather resembling the better work of the more tony British Crime Queens.  Noir--dark, dismal, doom-laden--it ain't, sorry.

I've recently been trying to track down all my DVDs in this series to evaluate just how noir the films in it really are.  (Below I have starred the ones I found.)  I was inspired in this effort by recently writing the introduction for Stark House's coming reissue of lady noirish mystery writer Marty Holland's novel Fallen Angel, the 1945 film adaptation of which was included in the FOX series.  I'll be doing intros to additional novels with film noir connections this coming year, 2023.

Over the next few weeks I will try to review as many of these films as I can and assess them on a noir scale of one to five--what?--heartbreaks, backstabs, broken dreams?

*1. Laura 1944

*2. Call Northside 777 1948

*3. Panic in the Streets 1950

4. House of Bamboo 1955

5. The Street with No Name 1948

6. Nightmare Alley 1947

*7. The House on 92nd Street 1945

*8. Somewhere in the Night 1946

*9. Whirlpool 1950

*10. The Dark Corner 1946

*11. Kiss of Death 1947

*12. Where the Sidewalk Ends 1950

13. No Way Out 1950

*14. Fallen Angel 1945

*15. The House on Telegraph Hill 1951

*16. Boomerang! 1947

*17. House of Strangers 1949

*18. I Wake up Screaming 1941

19. Vicki 1953

20. Shock 1946

*21. Fourteen Hours 1951

*22. Black Widow 1954

*23. Daisy Kenyon 1947

*24. Dangerous Crossing 1953

25. Moontide 1942

*26. Road House 1948

How many of these have you seen?

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Deck the Halls with Bouts of Horror! Hall of Death (1960), by Nedra Tyre

State Training School for Girls at Chalkville, Alabama, which operated for over a century,
from 1909 until it was hit by a tornado in 2012.  More pics here

Her cabin'd ample Spirit,

It flutter'd, and fail'd for breath.

Tonight it doth inherit

The vasty Hall of Death

Requiescat, Matthew Arnold

Earlier this year crime fiction publisher Stark House reprinted as one of their "twofers" a pair of mystery novels by one of the more original and interesting mid-century American crime novelists, Nedra Tyre (1912-1990), a native of the state of Georgia, which has been much in the news of late.  A social worker by vocation, Tyre also published six mystery novels and more than forty short crime stories.  These latter works start, I believe, with "Murder at the Poe Shrine" in 1955 and cease with "The Teddy Bear Crimes" in 1987, just three years before Tyre's death in a Richmond, Virginia area nursing home at the age of 78.  All of the short stories were published either in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

The American hardcover edition
reminds me of the 1962 horror film
Carnival of Souls or a brunette
Village of the Damned (1960)

I hope to see Tyre's short stories collected soon, but in the meantime Stark House this year reprinted one of Tyre's most highly regarded crime novels, Death of an Intruder (1953), together with her final effort in the novel line, Twice So Fair (1971); and they likely will be following up this year with two additional lauded Tyre mysteries, Mouse in Eternity (1950), her debut crime novel, and Hall of Death (1960).  This pair of novels most draws, among her crime writing, upon her own field of social work.  

I like Death of an Intruder, but Hall of Death is perhaps my favorite among Tyre's novels.  It is, I think, a more substantial book, at about 65,000 words versus, as I recollect, Intruder's barely 40,000.  (Arguably Intruder is really a novella.)  

Hall if also more firmly tethered in reality (albeit a nightmarish sort) than Intruder, which is really a kind of fantastical horror tale.  In her subtitle to the latter novel Tyre herself termed it a horror tale in three partsHall of Death, on the other hand, is a genuine detective story.

Tyre clearly found real life inspiration for Hall of Death in the 1950s scandals at the Georgia Training School for Girls in Adamsville, Georgia, now a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Atlanta.  (The Georgia Training School of course was segregated.)  Below are some evocative recent pics of the area on Youtube:

Tyre's novel is set primarily (and unnervingly claustrophobically) at the Training School for Girls in the city of some unnamed, obviously southern and rather backward, state.  However, as Tyre's friend Celestine Sibley, a beloved longtime columnist at the Atlanta Constitution, noted when reviewing Tyre's novel in 1960, the connection of her pal's fictional school--more a prison, really--to the Georgia school for delinquent girls is obvious.  

Six years earlier Celestine Sibley herself had written a series of articles about the problems at the Georgia school, contrasting it very unfavorably with Florida's Industrial School for Girls at Ocala.  Sibley condemned Georgia's school for its "inhuman treatment of students" (including shaving their heads as punishment--see this pic from the Digital Library of Georgia), not to mention "recurrent runaways, old and inadequate facilities and unsuitable or untrained staff."  

Sibley thought it telling that at the Florida School the entrance sign cheerily read "WELCOME!" while at the Georgia school the sign read forbiddingly "Enter on Business Only."  At the Florida school, walls gleamed with fresh paint, while at the Georgia school walls were scrawled with profanity.  At the Florida school, "shining window panes [were] framed with crisp curtains and potted plants," while at the Georgia school "shattered window panes" had been replaced with "boards and iron bolts."

In Hall of Death, Tyre excels at portraying this grim atmosphere of pervading gloom.  "If you've ever been in a penal or reform institution of any kind," Celestine Sibley assured her readers, "....You'll smell the tired old plumbing, hear the rats in the walls [and see the cockroaches in the kitchen--TPT], taste the sponge cake and canned fruit."  

Ace pb reprint
obviously trying to appeal to the
market for delinquency fiction

What the girls at the school are forced to endure, Sibley noted, is not wanton cruelty, but the banality of bland societal indifference--"a terrible bleakness engendered by the fact that the state, which held them as wards, was really indifferent to them.  They were cared for by the 'Manual of Operation' put out by the State Department of Welfare and there was nothing in the manual that mentioned love or healing damaged spirits or restoring confidence. So the girls themselves and the nine women staff members are grimly suitable figures for Miss Tyre's drama of hatred and murder."

The narrator and protagonist of the story, Miss Michael (I don't believe we ever learn her first name), is the idealistic new assistant to the stolid, by- the-book school superintendent, Miss Spinks.  At one point the latter woman bluntly tells her new assistant (who also teaches English and grammar at the school): 

"Miss Michael, please don't philosophize.  Just try to protect yourself."  

So Miss Michael keeps speculations like these to herself: 

No one ever seemed to look directly into a girl's eyes.  I suppose there was too much agony and defiance in them.

To establish contact with angry, hostile persons the easy way is to appeal to their anger and hostility, to claim their emotions and hatred as your own.  The way to love and kindness is infinitely more difficult. [This applies to politics too--TPT]

Sounding like a lot of people today in her bleak commitment to blanket punitive incarceration, Miss Spinks lectures Miss Michael with fatalistic finality:

We're carrying out instructions and it's not for us to question them [Just following orders!--TPT].  I'd like to have an adequate staff.  I'd like to have comfortable buildings.  But we have to make out with these barns.  You'll get along much better, Miss Michael, if you don't criticize.  We haven't a rehabilitation program.  The girls are here to be punished.  They don't want to change themselves and there's nothing we can do to change them.

In spite of Spinks, Miss Michael tries to reach the girls somehow.  She makes connections of a sort with two of them in particular: an angel names Lucy and a devil named Johnny.  With interesting results, to say the least.

For readers interesting in learning about a certain horrid place in terrible time, Hall of Death delivers.  In its own way it's as memorable a female institution mystery novel as Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night or Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes, though it would never be as generally popular on account of its pervasive gloominess.  Nedra Tyre herself loved British novels of manners, including manners mysteries, but her tone in this particular book is altogether more earnest and frequently dark.  

However, there is also a very nice little mystery tucked away in the text of this book, which, after all, includes two suicides, a couple of murders and another attempted one.  It's fairly clued, with some nice strategies of deception.  In other words, it's a genuine detective novel, unlike Death of Intruder.  Like Celestine Sibley, Anthony Boucher, a great fan of the author, highly praised the book, as did others.  "Told with a perception and sensitivity that few mystery novels can match," declared the Miami Herald of Hall of Death, "it is a story of chilling violence."  

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Birds and Beasts Were There: The Eighties Ross Macdonald Bantam Paperback Cover Art of James Marsh

1984 Bantam ed.

James Marsh (1946) is said to be best known for his cover art for the British New Wave band Talk Talk. (In the US you may remember their top forty hit "It's My Life," from nearly forty years ago now--I did.)  

Speaking for myself, I had no idea that James Marsh did the Talk Talk album covers, but I did know he did the cover art for this intriguing series of Bantam paperback Ross Macdonald reissues from the early Eighties (same time Talk Talk was getting off the ground). Indeed, I think he did cover art for every single RM novel. 

The Marsh covers are pretty hard to find today, fairly cheap and in good condition, but I always snap them up when I see a good deal on one, as I think Marsh's very distinctive covers are the best RM art out there.  

Marsh seems to have been especially fascinated with birds and beasts, as it were, especially insects and reptiles.  Around this same time, I see, he published an illustrated book entitled Bizarre Birds and Beasts.  Enjoy!'

Featured Right: Marsh's highly symbolic design for Ross Macdonald's penultimate novel, Sleeping Beauty, shows prescription pills falling down a n hourglass, transmuted into blood.  At the bottom is the flaming oil rig that is a recurrent image in the novel.  Those of you who have read the novel will know how cleverly this design captures themes of the novel.  

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Moray Dalton reprints 2023

It's been a while now, but a new group of Moray Dalton reprints is coming in the spring of 2023, to be followed, I hope, by another group in the winter.  I wanted to go chronologically with the remaining books in the Inspector Hugh Collier series, and now this is what we are going to do!  The first group coming (I'm just finishing the introductions now) will be:

Inspector Hugh Collier Series

The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman (1936) Hugh Collier #7

Death in the Dark (1938) Hugh Collier #8

Death in the Forest (1939) Hugh Collier #9


The Murder of Eve (1945)

Death at the Villa (1946)

The next group will be:

Inspector Hugh Collier series

The Price of Silence (1939) Hugh Collier #10

The Longbridge Murders (1945) Hugh Collier #12

The Case of the Dark Stranger (1948) Hugh Collier #14

Inquest on Miriam (1949) Hugh Collier #15

Death of a Spinster (1951) Hugh Collier #16

The first six Hugh Collier detective novels, along with The Art School Murders (1943), Collier #11, and The Condamine Case (1947), Collier #13, have been reprinted already.

I'm hoping for one more group of nonseries Dalton mysteries for 2024, including a certain much requested title!

I'll have more to say soon about the individual titles in the next group of Daltons.  I very much enjoyed reading them.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Annus Murderbilis: Doris Miles Disney's Dark Road (1946) and Who Rides a Tiger (1946)

Debates about when the Golden Age of detective fiction ended will go on, but obviously the decade of the 1940s accelerated the flux of traditional detection.  Espionage novels predictably became the vogue with the explosion of the Second World War, while hard-boiled mystery continued to increase in popularity, much to the chagrin of George Orwell.  The wartime paper shortage constituted a death knell for the leisurely ratiocinative prewar detective novel, for the most part, as novels of 60-80,000 words (or even fewer) became the norm.  The page numbers of most books in the Collins Crime Club shrank by 20% and the lost wordage went unrecovered with peace.  Readers became used to a more rapid pace in crime fiction, with less thinking and more acting.

Admittedly, bestseller Mary Roberts Rinehart, with her leisurely, mammoth mystery novels, soldiered wordily on, but more and more the American grand old mistress of mystery seemed an honored anachronism in an impending age of atom bombs, TV dinners, instant cake mix and space rockets.  Rinehart, a young matron when Queen Victoria passed away, had published her first mystery novel the year Henry Ford introduced the Model T and it had been filmed when movies remained silent.    

The term "psychological suspense"--generally called domestic suspense today, due to the missionary work of Sarah Weinman--had not quite come into vogue in mystery, but its practitioners were gathering in the dawn, murder weapons glinting in their hands.  Two of the biggest coming names in the U.S. were Margaret Millar of Canada and California (even Julian Symons, often chary of women writers imo, acknowledged her) and Charlotte Armstrong of Michigan and California.  Another fatal femme, vastly less heralded today (surely to some extent on account of the fact that her books unaccountably remain out-of-print), was Doris Miles Disney, a deep-dyed New England Yankee.  

Each women, each of whom was young enough to be a Rinehart daughter (or granddaughter in Millar's case), followed a similar pattern of publishing relatively traditional detective novels in the early Forties, followed by a shift to psychological suspense by the mid-Forties.  Let's take a quick look at chronology:


The Invisible Worm 1941 

The Weak-Eyed Bat 1942

The Devil Loves Me 1942

Wall of Eyes 1943

The Iron Gates 1945


Lay On, Mac Duff! 1942

The Case of the Weird Sisters 1943

The Innocent Flower 1945

The Unsuspected 1946


A Compound for Death 1943

Murder on a Tangent 1945

Dark Road 1946

Who Rides a Tiger 1946

I think The Iron Gates and The Unsuspected are pretty well-acknowledged classics of crime fiction, but so too should be Disney's Who Rides a Tiger, beyond cavil I think, and Dark Road as well.  For Doris Miles Disney 1946 was, one might say, annus murderbilis.  At the beginning of the year came Dark Road, at the end of it Who Rides a Tiger.  In my view Disney's accomplishment is the sort of artistic feat that recalls what Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine regularly used to be able to pull off in the 1980s and 1990s.  Someone gets this woman back in print!  If, having read all the books she had then written, I had been asked back in 1946 who was the greatest talent of these three (Millar, Armstrong and Disney), I would have said it was Doris Miles Disney (though later on the balance shifted I would say).

Now that I have gone and unwisely raised expectations, let me expound.

DARK ROAD is a classic inverted crime novel in the manner of Freeman Wills Crofts, yet with much more credibility in the depiction of human emotions.  To my mind the inverted crime novel needs a strong emotional core as well as a ratiocinative one, in order to foster the building up of suspense.  The inverted mystery  is a cat-and-mouse game between investigator and investigated and if we don't care at all about the characters a lot of the potential dramatic impact is lost.  

Crofts, a modern Puritan at heart, could only really portray one emotion--one sinful emotion--successfully: avarice.  Lust for gold he could envision, not lust for sex.  

And his moralism made his inverteds predictable: Crime does not, must not, pay!  Of course all too often it does pay, and pay very well, as Crofts doubtlessly knew, and the wicked flourish like the green bay tree.  But for Crofts depicting life as it really often unpleasantly was would have been altogether too demoralizing and bad for impressionable youth.  

With Doris Miles Disney (DMD), you never know what might happen, however.  She's not afraid to go there.

In Dark Road Disney introduces, as reviewers at the time noted, quite a flawed set of characters, beginning with her Madame Bovaryish, suburban housewife Hazel Clement, a blonde beauty of regrettably low social origins who in the Thirties snagged a modestly well-off businessman husband, much older than she and physically unappealing to her (he's pink, hairless and flabby), with a decided tendency to tip the  bottle, yet a good provider nonetheless.  

Hazel has been getting along with steady if boozy Ralph, taking pride in their house and their lakeside cottage and fending off his occasional need for nookie, until she meets her old flame Eugene.  The latter man slept with her but never married her on account of her coming from the wrong side of the tracks, but now some fifteen years later he is bored with his proper, right-side-of-the-tracks wife and ready to start something up with Hazel again.  

Hazel falls, and she passionately decides that if she can just get rid of Ralph, Eugene will divorce his wife and they can start over again, as they were meant to do.  Now it's just a matter of how to get rid of Ralph....  

Once Hazel decides on an extermination plan she carries it out with ruthless efficiency, baffling the local police but not, it increasingly seems, insurance investigator Jeff DiMarco, who is investigating the insurance claim on the late Ralph from his ex-business partner.  There's also Ralph's vengeful sister in the mix, who hates Hazel like poison.  As DiMarco closes in, what will the resourceful Hazel do next?

I found Dark Road a tremendously suspenseful crime novel, with some shades of James M.  Cain's classic 1943 crime novel Double Indemnity.  DiMarco, for example, is rather attracted to the alluring Hazel.  The reader, further, is given some grounds to sympathize with her, although the nasty way she chooses to deal with Ralph should be alienating.  However, I found Ralph's sister genuinely awful, as I think we are meant to.  In a more conventionally pious crime novel, the avenging female would be more angel than harpy.  This moral ambiguity is just one of the ways Dark Road is ahead of its time, another being its credible depiction of sexual desire.  It's a real, living, heavy breathing thing in Disney, not a theoretical construct as it is in Crofts (which is fine for a classic puzzle but not so much for an inverted mystery).

Dark Road is a strong novel all through but what really turns it up to the top notch is its denouement, about which I shall say nothing, dear readers!  See for yourselves--at least if the novel gets reprinted!  It was previously reprinted a few times in paperback, but the copies have been vanishing off the market.  DMD is a highly collectible author. 

Even better than Dark Road is Who Rides a Tiger, which deliciously anticipates the brilliant nineties mysteries of Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) in the way it weaves back and forth between the present day (World War Two when DMD was writing it) and the past (mostly the last two decades of the nineteenth century).  I was amused to see one contemporary review complain that the time hopping, as it were, made the novel too confusing!  Verily, some readers just weren't ready for this sort of thing back then.  Not Anthony Boucher, however, who called it a "warm, full-bodied, well-written reconstruction of the past."  A great DMD fan from her second crime novel, he called Dark Road "a well-written and well-plotted novel of murder, ironic and moving."

Tiger opens with the thoughts of a dying bedridden woman, octogenarian Harriet Lowden, a wealthy, curdled old lady who hates her own relations (like poison!) and has resolved to leave all her money away from them.  Her great-niece Susan Lowden, who happened to spend Harriet's final day with her, resolves to find out more about Harriet and her life after she discovers the old woman's diaries.  She is fascinated with the enigma of how Harriet turned out like she did--and she'd like to find some way of proving that the old woman was of unsound mind too.  She and her father could use some of Aunt Harriet's money!  

So off the diaries take us on the story of Harriet's life--and a gripping tale it is too, full of passion, both bound and boundless.  Those of you who read Barbara Vine might immediately think of Asta's Book, published almost a half-century after Tiger in the way DMD's tale sets a modern-day framing story around a narrative from the past, made available by a diary record.   Both these books are exemplary crime novels, but DMD's central enigmatic figure, Harriet, may be the most memorable character in either tome.  I won't soon forget poor Harriet.  Neither did Disney, who declared later in life that Tiger was her favorite among her many books.  For once a prolific mystery writer made a good estimate of her own work.

Going against some of what I said above, Tiger is a long book for the period by my count, some 100,000 words, though I think it's still quite a bit shorter than Asta's Book.  But it benefits from that depth and spaciousness.  Dark Road is about 80,000 words and somewhat longer than the average for the period too.  Disney went on to write over forty more books in thirty years and as reliable a producer as she was, these two early novels, especially Tiger, suggest to me that her work might have been even stronger had she perhaps cut back a bit on the book production.  Yet she was the primary--and all too soon only--breadwinner in her family with a young daughter to raise, which I suspect was a spur to production.  It would be lovely to sit back and write leisurely as out wimsey takes us, but in the real world all too often privation is the primary spur--and it doesn't relent!

NOTE: There are copies of Tiger available on the used market, but at all costs I implore you to avoid even glimpsing the Eighties/Nineties Zebra edition of the book.  Zebra had a set design for the Disney reissues which was remarkable stupid, is all I can say.  It's especially bad with Tiger, but also for another title by her, The Magic Grandfather, as blogger John Norris has noted.  The Reade is Warned!  I'm trying to get DMD reprinted now.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Day of the Conflagration: No Next of Kin (1959), by Doris Miles Disney

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived late at Hartford, Connecticut on July 5, 1944--a portent of ill luck to the performers, like uttering the name of The Scottish Play during a theatrical performance.  As a result the early show for the day was canceled, but the evening gala went on, without mishap; and the next afternoon perhaps seven thousand people, by far the largest portion of which were women and children (one of whom was perennial Seventies game show panelist Charles Nelson Reilly), gaily trooped into the Big Top to see, among other delights, exotic animals, cavorting clowns and the dazzling leaps and dives of the Flying Wallendas.  It was a sweltering hot day with not a hope of rain, though had there been rain the great tent had been waterproofed with a coating of paraffin wax dissolved in gasoline--customary practice at the time time.

The 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, which killed at least 167, inspired Doris Miles Disney's
crime novel No Next of Kin (1959)

Shortly after the lions did their tricks and the Wallendas took the stage, a fire broke out, possibly as a result of a spent cigarette carelessly thrown outside the tent by the men's toilets.  Coated with paraffin, the Big Top was a pyromaniac's dream.  It quickly went up into flames, as the crowd seated on the bleachers inside was overtaken by rising panic.  Some of the exits were blocked by animal cages and the chutes through which the big cats had exited to safety. 

With scorching flames reaching one hundred feet into the air, the Big Top collapsed within ten minutes on the people still trapped below.  Nearly 170 men, women and children (possibly more) were killed variously by flames, smoke, desperate leaps from the stands and the trampling bodies of other panicked, fleeing people.

One body that was never identified, that of well-preserved little white blonde girl, caught the public imagination.  She became known as "Little Miss 1565," after her identification number at the morgue.  To this day this child has never been conclusively identified.  

Crime writer Doris Miles Disney (1907-1976) was a native of Connecticut and lived there the majority of her life, only departing permanently from the state in the last decade of her life.  In 1958, when she looking for an idea for the twenty-fifth of her nearly fifty crime novels, she "lit" upon the Hartford Circus Fire.  This novel she titled No Next of Kin.

The prologue of the novel, titled September 1954, is gripping.  We learn that a twenty-three-year-old woman named Andrea Langdon has just collected her five-year-old illegitimate son, Greg, from his carers since his birth, a couple named Effie and Walt Horbal, who live on an isolated farm in rural Connecticut.  To her wealthy widowed businessman father she plans to introduce Greg as a boy she has decided to adopt as a result of her orphanage charity work.  

At a town which the mother and son pass through on their drive, they come upon the Annual Fair and they decide to see the sights there for a short while.  A fire breaks out while they are there and tragically Greg is among the casualties.  

This is an effective vignette, to a great extent because the author doesn't blanch at killing off a sweet-natured little boy, who clings the whole duration of the last minutes of his life to the spotted toy dog his mother gave him.  A likeness of the dog graces the front of the hardcover edition (see above right).  Greg becomes known in the press as "Little Sir 915," since Andrea in self-preservation does not identify the dead boy as her son.  

Chapter One takes place four years later when Andrea, now twenty-seven, is living at her wealthy father's country home, helping to manage his political campaign for Congress.  When she appears on television with her father, she becomes the subject of a blackmail plot by the scoundrel father of her child, who is working in collusion with Walt Horbal.  She'd better pay up, see, or they will reveal she had an out-of-wedlock child!

Andrea had thought the Horbals had moved out to Nevada and apparently she didn't think at all of the father of her child, Seymour Boyd, a rotter from a good (i.e., wealthy) family who impregnated her when she was an impressionable eighteen year old schoolgirl and then walked out on her, not realizing her dear pa was so loaded with dough.  

What does Andrea do now?  Will she try to pay them off?  Will the rogues fall out?  Will that charming reporter, Fergus MacDonald, whom Andrea recently met at a political do, come to her rescue?  The answer to these and other questions you probably know already.

No Next of Kin is a short book of about sixty thousand words, but I increasingly lost interest in it as I went along.  I wouldn't say a single thing that happened between its covers surprised me, aside from what a dreadful wet noodle Andrea turns out to be--and maybe this shouldn't have surprised me.  

Famed "sad tramp" clown
Emmett Kelly after the fire

After all, look at what a collection of limp dishrags Mignon Eberhart heroines usually turn out to be! But the prologue raised my expectations that Andrea might turn out differently from what you get in Eberland.  Alas, no: Andrea evidently would have gone on paying blackmail forever had her problem not taken care of itself and Fergus stepped in for good measure.  

Andrea actually pliantly turns over $50,000 to the shit Seymour Boyd--about $468,000 in modern worth.  That's how much money Andrea has to play around with.  I really found myself not caring at all about the fate of this privileged and self-centered person.  

I've seen this one referred to as DMD's best book and it was her only selection, I believe, in the Dell Great Mystery Library, but I have read better by her.  It may be the historical connection to the Hartford Circus Fire that it intrigued people (this book was mentioned in DMD's obituaries), but the real life fire was vastly more interesting and tragic.

Monday, October 31, 2022

"The White Maniac" (1867), by Mary Fortune (Guest Blog Post by Lucy Sussex)

And now a little tale of terror for this Halloween, courtesy of Australian author Lucy Sussex, who over the years has detailed so much about lowdown deeds down under.

Also see Bev Hankins' Friday Nights Fright post, which came a bit late but is perfect for tonight, on creepy country houses, here.  

Now onto Lucy Sussex's piece on Mary Fortune's "White Maniac"--The Passing Tramp

Many stories lie completely forgotten in the dusty pages of old magazines. Some are truly terrible, others of their time and unable to transcend it, and a few prove to have startling, enduring value. One of these is Mary Fortune’s 1867 “The White Maniac: A Doctor’s Tale”. When rediscovered last century it was of initial interest as a proto-vampire story, though that definition has been contested. 

In 2020 it was reprinted in the British Library’s anthology Visions of the Vampire: Two Centuries of Immortal Tales, eds. Sorcha Ní Fhlainn and Xavier Aldana Reyes. This honour is all the more unusual in that until recently the story and its author were totally unknown. Mary Fortune (1832-1911), who wrote as Waif Wander and W. W., was an Irish-born woman who would emigrate to Canada and then Australia. She is best known as a pioneering woman detective writer, producing over 500 stories in the serial “The Detective’s Album, published from 1868-1908).

While concealing her identity and name almost completely (for good reason) she had a forty-year writing career. It included revolutionary poetry, an unreliable memoir, and spirited journalism, but she also worked successfully in the Gothic. Her 1866-7 novel Clyzia the Dwarf is a deliciously excessive melodrama, featuring a deformed Roma woman with a magic snake necklace, which on command comes alive and bites her enemies.

“The White Maniac”, while melodramatic, is a far more compact and controlled piece. Fortune had been writing detective stories for only two years, and the tale is structured like a detective story, a mystery presented, with a truly creepy revelation.

Despite Fortune living in Australia, the story is set in London. The narrator, young Doctor Elveston, is intrigued by the “white mad people in his locale”, foreigners whose house and dress is monotonous white only.

Even when he ascends a belfry to snoop over the high walls, all he sees is “glaring and sparkling gravel” and marble statuary, everything pure white.

In the usual coincidental way of Victorian narratives, Elveston is consulted by the head of this bizarre household, a French Duke. His niece Blanche, Princess DÁlberville is in failing health, not least from insanity. All colours, particularly red, have to be kept away from her, lest she suffer “uncontrollable agitation”.

As a consequence she lives in a world of white: “…one can scarcely conceive the strange cold look the utter absence of colour gave it. A Turkey carpet that looked like a woven fall of snow; white satin damask on chair, couch, and ottoman; draped satin and snowy lace around the windows…I shook with cold as I entered it.”

Elveston finds the lady frail and wan, but perfectly sane. She insists she is imprisoned by her maniac uncle. For those thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Fortune was decades in advance; and a century before Angela Carter, whose “The Company of Wolves” the tale most closely resembles, particularly in its colour symbolism.

Fortune was an unconventional woman for her time, a feminist journalist, bigamist, and the mother of an illegitimate son who grew up to be a career criminal. The male persona she uses in her detective and other stories (such as “The White Maniac”) allows her to treat ‘indelicate’ subjects such as rape explicitly, something not permitted to women writers.

Here is unsaid is what is the clear diagnosis for Blanche: amemorrhoea, absence of menstruation. Contemporary medical men, such as George Man Burrows, termed menstruation “the moral and physical barometer of the female constitution” (Commentary on Insanity, 1828). Another authority, John Millar, proclaimed that “Mental derangement frequently occurs in young females from Amenorrhoea” (Hints on Insanity, 1861). He suggested it might be cured with leeches to the pubis.

Elveston falls in love with Blanche and decides to determine just who is mad. Being a man of science, he tests with a large nosegay of scarlet verbenas, presented to Blanche.


Blanche tears the flowers apart, and then:

…there was a rush, and white teeth were at my throat, tearing flesh, and sinews, and veins; and a horrible sound was in my ears, as if some wild animal was tearing at my body. I dreamt that I was in a jungle in Africa, and that a tiger, with a tawney coat, was devouring my still living flesh, and then I became insensible.

I read this story aloud at a spooky story literary event, where I was obliged to follow a well-known rock star. Being prepared, I armed myself with the reddest flowers I could find, and as I began to read this paragraph, tore them apart. It worked very well. Strictly speaking, the word vampire does not appear in the story, rather ‘anthropopagy’, cannibalism.

However, the symbolism of the blood does situate the story in the vampire canon—and in its use of the female vampire it predates Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” by four years. The story has attracted interest from film-makers, though never committed to the screen yet. Oh, Netflix! But it shows how an unknown story, by an author nearly lost to literary history, can rise from the dead and stalk our imaginations most powerfully.  

Don't PAN-ic! The Third Ghost Book (1955), by Lady Cynthia Asquith

For many years paperback publisher Pan--known for their series of Books of Horror Stories, edited by Herbert Von Thal--also published a series of Ghost Books, the first three of which had been edited, on their original hardcover publications, by Lady Cynthia Asquith.  Like the early Horror Books, the first three Ghost Books appeared in memorable Pan editions--certainly much more memorable than the boring photographed ones from Beagle which followed in the seventies.  

The first of Lady Cynthia's celebrated Ghost Books appeared in hardcover way back in 1927, but the other two belatedly appeared in the Fifties, in 1952 and 1955 respectively, not too long before the editor's death in 1960.  There were also four additional supernatural anthologies that Lady Cynthia edited between the First and Second World Wars which are, like the original Ghost Book, rather rare now.

The Third Ghost Book collects 27 stories (!) and sports in the original Pan edition a great creepy cover.  However, though there are some good, even great stories, between its covers, I found it a disappointment overall.  For me the standouts--the Snickers bars in the treats bag--were:

The Claimant, Elizabeth Bowen

The Doctor, Mary Fitt

Ringing the Changes, Robert Aickman

The Tower, Marghanita Laski

I Became Bulwinkle, Jonathan Curling

Harry, Rosemary Timperley

Poor Girl, Elizabeth Taylor

The King of Spades, Nancy Spain

Two of them, Ringing the Changes and The Tower, I had read before, but it was pleasant--if that's the right word--to come back to them.  Both the Elizabeths--Bowen (1899-1973) and Taylor (1912-75)--were highly successful mainstream writers, while Robert Aickman (1914-81) was one of the most "literary" of horror writers.  

Rosemary Timperley (1912-88) wrote a number of well-regarded ghost stories and after Asquith's demise she edited Ghost Books 5-9.  Marghanita Laski (1915-1988) was a novelist, one of her books being The Victorian Chaise-Lounge.

Mary Fitt and (1897-1959) Nancy Spain (1917-1964) we here will know from their crime fiction surely.  Apparently Jonathan Curling published a couple of biographies and he also contributed to The Second Ghost Book, but I know nothing else about him.

The Claimant offers a cliched situation--the couple who buy a dream home in the country and then live (or don't live) to regret it--but Bowen makes you really feel for the nice retired couple.  When you care for the characters in a horror story that makes the horror in what happens more potent.

The Doctor tells of a the queer experience of a woman, lost in the country, at a mansion she finds providentially (or not).  It's the last line that makes this one--it definitely made me sit up.  The story has the flavor of a classic campfire tale.  And Mary Fitt's murder fiction fanciers won't be disappointed!  The basic situation could have been expanded into a Victorian murder story.

Ringing the Changes is an early story by Aickman, and one of his best.  Set in a town that resembles the famous Suffolk "drowned town" of Dunwich, which for centuries has been crumbling away into the sea, the story draws on the legend that at certain tides one can hear the bells from the towers of ancient churches submerged in the water.  It's a fantastically evocative story with its trappings of menace and terror, but there's also a very interesting sexual subtext among the well-realized characters at the local inn (like in a lot of Aickman, I think.)  Aickman is regarded as one of the greatest horror writers from the second half of the twentieth century, and rightly so.  

Yielding no place to Aickman's story is Marghanita Laski's The Tower, a brilliant and terrifying short tale loaded in its short space with commentary on male-female relationships (liker Laski's novel The Victorian Chaise-Lounge). It's about a woman, the wife of a British cultural official in Italy, who while on a solo touring excursion outside Florence, stops, as the day dies, to pop in (just for a moment) an ancient tower....This model short story has developed a sort of life of its own for students of the short story, and I can see why.  It's beautifully constructed.  

Jonathan Curling's tale, I Became Bulwinkle, is really more a soul transference story rather than a ghost story proper, and it's peopled with a Wodehouse-style characters, but I thought it was really quite  effectively horrid. I'd like to know what other fiction curling wrote.

Harry is another tale that succeeds on the strength of its characterization and is quite poignant on that account.  In it Timperley taps into adoptive parents' fears that the child they adopted isn't really "theirs'" in some sense.  I notice throughout the affectionate and caring adoptive mother still refers to her little girl's dead parents as her "real" parents.  How fortunate that we have changed that language today!

In Poor Girl, Elizabeth Taylor taps into the classic Turn of the Screw timid governess at a country house situation as the "poor girl" of the title tries to cope with her precocious young male charge.  Taylor packs quite a bit in here about relations between the sexes and classes in the late Victorian era (around 1900)--and the roaring Twenties too!  What would Queen Victoria have made of it all?

Given the quirkiness of most of her crime fiction, I was surprised how "normal" was the Nancy Spain story, The King of Spades, about young Ronald, his mixed doubles tennis partner Janice and his his co-worker at the bank, Doreen.  It has something of the sardonic dark quality of a Francis Iles--and that is no bad thing in a murder story.  Is it a ghost story?  You decide.

I didn't particularly like L. P. Hartley's story in the collection, but his introduction to the volume is very interesting indeed and I think I will do a separate post on it.  In the meantime, Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2022

Friday Night Frights 3: Woolrich Weirds Out, Vampire's Honeymoon (1985 short story collection), by Cornell Woolrich

Publisher Carroll & Graf did a lot of neat vintage crime fiction reprints in 1980s and 1990s, including a couple of 1985 Cornell Woolwich short fiction collections, Blind Date with Death and Vampire's Honeymoon.  The former I reviewed previously here and the latter I am reviewing tonight for Friday Night Frights.

"Vampire's Honeymoon" contains four novelettes: the title story, "Graves for the Living," "I'm Dangerous Tonight" (actually a novella by my count) and "The Street of Jungle Death."  By far the best known of these, I suppose, is "I'm Dangerous Tonight," on account of its having been filmed in 1990 as a TV movie by Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist fame.  It's the one about the devil dress.  (See below.)

On the other hand, Woolrich later expanded The Street of Jungle Death into the excellent serial killer novel Black Alibi (1942), which was filmed by Jacques Tourneur the next year as The Leopard Man, one of the better Woolrich films, so it definitely might seem familiar to you if you read it.  The other two novelettes have never been filmed, but certainly they should be entertaining if they were!

Vampire's Honeymoon is the shortest of the tales, at about 10,000 words, though Woolrich later expanded it under the more evocative title My Lips Destroy for inclusion in his short fiction collection Beyond the Night.  I don't know that it necessarily benefits from the expansion; in both versions the plot is the same.

With Vampire's Honeymoon, which was published in pulp magazine Horror Stories in August 1939, Woolrich was faced with the basic problem that anyone faces in doing a modern vampire story: How do you portray vampires in an up-to-date setting without seeming hokey?  

Ever since Dracula and Hammer horror films, it's hard not to associate vampires with Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee (or maybe Frank Langella) and all the traditionally stage properties: forbidding Gothic castles and frightened, superstitious peasants; crosses and coffins and cloves of garlic; squeaking black bats and heaving Victorian bosoms.  

However, Tobe Hooper (him again) pulled it off with his superb Salem's Lot two-part television film, which is set in the state of Maine in the Seventies and still scared the bjeesus outta me in 1979 when I was unlucky age thirteen!

For that shocker, which was based on the bestselling Stephen King novel, Hooper drew on the 1922 German expressionist film Nosferatu, rather than Dracula and its unholy progeny.  Yet another good, if a bit cheesy, effort was the Very Eighties film Fright Night (1985), where Chris Sarandon played your classic sexy, seductive bloodsucker to a terrible toothy T.  

The Carroll & Graf cover of Vampire's Honeymoon (see above left) depicts Christopher Lee as Dracula about to put the bite on actress Melissa Stribling in Horror of Dracula (1958).  This happens to be an inaccurate depiction of the tale, however, for it concerns not a male, but a female vampire, harking all the way back to Victorian author Sheridan Le Fanu's creepy tale Carmilla, without the lesbian subtext.

French actress Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, a 1983 vampire film

Vampire's Honeymoon has been routinely dismissed by Woolrich critics, with Anthony Boucher sniffily deriding the tale as "the most tedious arrangement of cliches on the vampire theme ever assembled."  Woolrich biographer Francis Nevins sneeringly pronounces it "one of the worst [stories Woolrich] ever perpetrated."  

Personally, I don't think it's a bad tale at all, though certainly there's no suspense over what the hell's up with Dick Manning's weird bride.  Of course when the publisher of Horror Stories insisted on calling the tale "Vampire's Honeymoon"--Woolrich's preferred title was Blood Kisses--they rather gave the game away at the very start.  Was Blood Kisses too sexual a title for the pulps?

Vampire's Honeymoon is a competently told vampire thriller, with some effective shuddery passages.  (And, yes, the couple in question does go off on a honeymoon together, in Atlantic City!)  Personally, I think the tale has been too quickly brushed off by critics.  One interesting point to me is the question of how it might have helped lead to Woolrich writing his great crime novel The Bride Wore Black, which Woolrich completed ten months later in June of the following year.  

The scene where Dick Manning--an engineer in New York City enjoying his engagement party at some friends' high rise penthouse apartment with his intended, Sherry Wayne--first meets, on the dim terrace outside the apartment, his future vampire bride, on whose account he promptly dumps Sherry, is strongly reminiscent of the unforgettable terrace scene in Bride Wore Black (unforgivably filmed in daylight in the Truffaut film).  Beyond that the vampire, who suggestively calls herself Faustine (see the Algernon Swinburne poem by that name), is a hunter and a slayer of men, just like the remorseless Bride.

In Honeymoon Dick's fiancee Sherry is blonde and unsubtly of the world of light, while Faustine is dark-haired and very much of the night.  Nevins makes much of this rather obvious vampire symbolism, choosing to read the story as a parable about Woolrich's half-Mexican father's rejection of his mother and taking up with a series of Mexican mistresses.  (Dick is a civil engineer, like Woolrich's father.)  Well, maybe, but again, what else are you going to do in a vampire story?  Vampires are creatures of the night after all!  Also pretty young blonde heroines are routinely featured in Woolrich tales.  

Surprisingly to me, Nevins with all his fixation on Woolrich being a "self-hating homosexual" completely fails to see, in Faustine's late night perambulations lustily seeking men to suck, any relation to gay cruising.  Ya missed an opportunity here, Mike!  Indeed, there's quite a lot of emphasis in this story about neck biting and blood letting, with rather more sexual implication than we usually see in Woolrich.

Another interesting point is that Sherry, who initially seems just a wilting blonde ingenue, actually emerges as one of Woolrich's classic fair avengers.  Dick may be a "poor goop" as Nevins declarers, but Sherry gives the story some additional bite!

One can also see an influence on The Bride Wore Black in I'm Dangerous Tonight, a 1937 novella about a literally Satanic dress that turns the women who wear it into to bloodthirsty killers.  Now this is a great idea for a shocker (the title is great too) and I can see how it appealed to Tobe Hooper and company.  

The novella starts out in France, at a Parisian dressmakers, moves shipboard across the Atlantic and then ends up in New York.  The first two murder sequences in the novel are terrific and quite spine-tingling, especially the one on the ship, which is another precursor to the terrace scene in Bride.  The problem I have with this tale, however, is that the narrative focus shifts from the murder-crazed women to the stolid New York police detective on the trail of the demonic dress.  It becomes more of a detective and less a horror story at that point, which makes little artistic sense to me.  If you are going to take the time to introduce Satan into your story, you'd damn well better keep things satanic.

Not surprisingly, the 1990 adaptation of the novella was "loose."  It's still a killer idea for a story, however, and you should see the film, which has sexy Madchen Amick of Twin Peaks fame, late character actor R. Lee Ermey, Dee Wallace and, in a small role, Anthony Perkins, who had given up trying to outrun his horror typecasting.  Even Natalie Shafer--aka Lovey from Gilligan's Island--pops up for a few minutes, as the invalid grandmother.  The frail Shafer must have been nearly ninety when this was filmed and she died from liver cancer the next year.   

Anthony Perkins himself would die from AIDS-related pneumonia two years later, after appearing in a few more crime-oriented films, including Psycho IV and A Demon in My View, an adaptation of the Psycho-influenced Ruth Rendell novel, and the TV mystery In the Deep Woods, which aired after the actor's tragic, untimely death at the age of sixty.  AIDS cheated us out of at least another twenty years of Anthony Perkins film performances.  

There is also an unacknowledged remake of I'm Dangerous Tonight, evidently, a 2020 film called In Fabric, which I have not seen but it sounds interesting.  You can't keep a devil in a red dress down!

Getting back to the story for a second, Nevins in another one of his dippy and revolting interpretations of Woolrich suggests that the portrayal of the women who don the devil dress as "murderous psychotics" reflects "the homosexual man's perception of women as Wholly Other."  Nevins adheres to the notion that gay men really hate women and can't write about them because they don't *bleep* them, which used to be current among repulsive anti-gay psychiatrists and cultural observers, like sixty or seventy years ago.  Back then this was a charge leveled by straight men at gay playwrights Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, William Inge and our old friend Hugh Wheeler, as they were sternely admonished to stop writing about straight people and stick to their fellow queers.  Their heterosexual critics had difficulty seeing them through any other lens than a lavender-shaded one.  

I continue to be amazed that this massive compilation of egregious negative queer stereotypes--aka, Nevins' biography of Woolrich--became the final word (purportedly) on Woolrich for over three decades, well into the ostensibly more enlightened 21st century.  I can only conclude that most people haven't actually read Nevins' biography, which, to be sure, is extremely long and pretty impenetrable.  

When I published my revisionist Woolrich article at Crimereads back in January, I was gratified to find that I wasn't the only one repelled by the outdated--outdated even when the book was published--homophobic attitudes in this book.  On the other hand, I recently had an unpleasant disagreement on Facebook with an outspoken gay man in the biz who defended Nevins as simply representing the general view of 1988.  I don't think so, my lad!  1988 was not 1968 or 1958.  In any event, would he similarly let off the hook the people, including Nevins himself, who kept repeating the Nevins mantra in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, into the 2020s?  Maybe he would, but I'm not.

The truth is Woolrich, whatever the exact nature of his sexuality, wrote a lot better about women then most of his contemporarily noir and hard-boiled writers, straight men for the most part who often portrayed women dreadfully chauvinistically, even misogynistically.  A good chunk of I'm Dangerous Tonight is even written, quite convincingly, from different women's perspectives.  

Personally, I think a version of I'm Dangerous Tonight set among drag queens would be interesting, but given today's drag queen bogeyman (or woman) hysteria, maybe not!  Don't want to encourage the queer-bashing hysterics out there.  Incidentally, if you believe in the sailor-suit-in-the-suitcase story that is so dear to Nevins' heart and that Woolrich liked to cruise the Port of Los Angeles in uniform, as it were, I suppose you could argue that I'm Dangerous Tonight provides evidence of clothing fetishism on Woolrich's part--although as far as I know no one ever accused him of stepping out in a red dress.  (Even J. Edgar Hoover wore black, I think.)  

killer (?) cat bares fangs in The Leopard Man 

The Street of Jungle Death is an interesting inclusion in this collection, if only because it shows how much Woolrich could improve a novelette when he novelized it.  It's about a leopard ostensibly running amok in Los Angeles (!), killing pretty young women.  (Hm....)  

There are some good, shuddery death sequences in this story, but the novel, reviewed by me here, is so much better than the novelette.  Woolrich moved the setting from LA to South America, which makes the whole thing a whole lot more plausible; changed the cat to a jaguar; ramped up the evocative writing and atmospheric terror; and dispensed with attempting to provide rational motivations, which is just as well, believe me.  In the process a decent crime novelette blossomed into a great crime novel.  

Finally, there's the best tale in this collection, Graves for the Living, which Francis Nevins singled out as the lead story to his landmark Woolrich anthology Nightwebs, published in 1971, just three years after Woolrich's death at the age of sixty-four.  Admittedly this is a lurid, outlandish story and I have to wonder whether the frequently stodgy Julian Symons--who with overweening dogmatism pronounced Nightwebs a dreadful collection in his book Bloody Murder--ever even got past this one.  It's not characteristic of Woolrich, really, but it's a fascinating tale nonetheless.  Despite all my disagreements with Nevins, Nightwebs is quite a good collection of tales, Julian Symons' pronouncement notwithstanding.  

Basically Graves is about a damaged young man who runs afoul of a blackmailing cult composed of nuts with obsessions about premature burial--now there's something you don't see every day!  But despite the bizarre plot it's really quite scary.  There's really a palpable sense of "no escape" here, that the cult is omnipresent and omnipotent and that our hero is doomed.  Is he?  You must read and see!  

Reading this one I was reminded of Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim (1943) and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), both terrific films about cults, as well as those splendid grisly old EC comic books from the Fifties, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror.  

And then there's the question of Edgar Allan Poe.  Nevins with his penchant for declamatory exaggeration pronounced over and over again that Woolrich was the Poe of the twentieth century, but I don't know that that was doing him any favors.  Certainly Woolrich was often gloomy and doomful, like Poe, but most of his tales lack the Gothic trappings of the Master.  

Graves for the Living, on the other hand, has the authentic macabre Poe touch in spades--as does another terrific Woolrich tale, The Living Lie Down with the Dead. Both of them, uncoincidentally, concern premature burial, a subject about which Poe certainly wrote a thing or two!

Friday, October 21, 2022

Friday Night Frights 2: The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), by Charlotte Armstrong

If you are reading this you have survived into your second week of Friday Night Frights.  Here's the the link to Bev Hankins' contribution: Curses! Spoiled Again!  And this, well, weird number is mine:

It has been quite a while since I reviewed something by Charlotte Armstrong here--this review, for example, is over a decade old--but her work is often very good indeed.  Anthony Boucher termed her "one of the few authentic spell-catching witches of modern times," so Halloween seems a good time for reviewing a novel by her!

Her "witchy" qualities aside, Armstrong was one of the mid-century American "domestic suspense" writers (Margaret Millar being another) who actually started her crime writing career with detective novels in the classic mold.  Her first three mysteries have a series sleuth, a retired American history professor turned detective named MacDougal Duff (aka Mac Duff), who fits neatly into the classic tradition.  

In the second novel in the series, The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), Mac Duff, who pops up briefly in a prologue but doesn't appear to detect, proper, until about 40% of the way through the book, investigates a series of murder attempts in northern Michigan, being on the scene by happenstance in the serendipitous way of amateur detectives.  

Let's set Mac Duff aside for a minute and get on to the early narrative.  Alice Brennan, personal secretary and fiancee to millionaire Chicago businessman Innes Whitlock, is driving with him to his luxury camp in northern Michigan (the upper peninsula, evidently), when they have car trouble and have to stop for the night at the home of Innes' three half-sisters, the weird sisters of the title--and, boy, are they!

Innes' chauffeur is Fred Bitoski, an appealing fellow who went to the University of Michigan on a football scholarship.  Even though Alice has agreed, mercenary fashion, to marry Innes, whom she doesn't love, we can tell right at the start that she has eyes for Fred, shall we say, and Fred for her.  Complicating matters, Alice is on the rebound from an unrequited (?) crush on Innes' handsome attorney Art Killeen, who shows up later in the book too.  So this isn't just a triangle but a rectangle.  

Innes' sisters live in Ogaunee, a dying iron mining town where their father, until his death in a 1925 car accident, was the leading citizen.  They still live on the hill in an old mansion as the town's regal gentlewomen, albeit decaying ones, dependent on infusions of cash from their younger half-brother Innes.  

Ogaunee pretty obviously is based on the real Michigan town of Negaunee, and the mansion likely is based on the Captain Henry Merry house (see above), which sadly was torn down after many years of decrepitude in 1957.  A native Englishman, Merry according to the Mining Journal was the the owner of the Jackson Iron Mine and "Negaunee's most powerful man."  Charlotte Armstrong herself was born not too far away at the smaller Michigan town of Vulcan and was the daughter of a mining engineer.  

Sixties Ace pb reprint
In fact the sisters in the book are 
neither triplets nor hot, nor 
is one of them green!

So why are the three sisters weird?  Well, partly because they are all deludedly living in their genteel past, very much like characters in a Margery Allingham crime novel.  But also because--and I suppose this would be seen as ableist today--they are all physically impaired in some way.  

Gertrude, the eldest, is blind, Maud, the middle daughter, deaf, and Isabel, the youngest, has an artificial arm.  (She lost the original one in that 1925 car accident with her father.)  You might have thought Isabel would be mute--you know, see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil--but, hey, close enough, right?

Anyway, once Innes is at the house, a series of attempts is made to kill him, though in the event(s), Innes proves more resilient than Rasputin.  He's still alive when Mac Duff--Alice and Art are former students of his--appears on the scene to catch the fiend behind the attempts.  

Sisters is quite an enjoyable crime novel with very well-realized characters and sparkling writing, but as a formal mystery the book is only middling.  There are no great Agatha Christie-like surprises here.  Indeed, it is really no surprise that Armstrong would soon turn from detective to crime novels, which play to her great strengths of characterization and suspense.  

Interestingly, The Case of the Weird Sisters was filmed in the United Kingdom in 1948, with a script co-written by noted Welsh author Dylan Thomas!  The setting quite plausibly is transferred to Wales and it's an entertaining, literate mystery flick of the Old Dark House variety.  I will review it here soon.  

Admittedly it's far less well known than the two other films from this time based on Armstrong crime novels, The Unsuspected (1947) and Don't Bother to Knock (1952), as is the book itself.  But it and the book are worth checking out.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Friday Night Frights 1: New England Interiors--The Ghostly Fiction (with more than a spot of crime) of Mary Wilkins Freeman

I hosted a Friday Night Fright blogging series in October of 2020.  We didn't do it last year, for some reason, although I did my own spooky postings.  This year I mentioned in my mystery groups doing it again and I got one taker, my friend Bev Hankins at My Reader's Block.  So I don't know what that says about my expanding popularity in the blogging community, but thank you, Bev! Perhaps we frightened the others away!  Anyway, please accept these offerings of two little witches.  Here's Bev's post:

Witches, Ghosts & Mummies, Oh My!

Mary Wilkins Freeman

For my first Friday Fright post this month, I thought I would look at the celebrated New England regionalist writer Mary Wilkin Freeman (1852-1930), among whose prodigious output are some ghost stories, six of which were collected in a small volume, The Wind in the Rose-Bush (1903), which is considered a landmark in supernatural literature.  

As I wrote last year, I was attracted to classic horror literature by the British Victorian/Edwardian ghost story writer M. R. James, to whom I was introduced around 1990 in a James collection with an introduction by the late crime writer Ruth Rendell, a huge admirer of James.  In the 1980s I had read some Stephen King and HP Lovecraft, the latter of whom I regrettably decided, frankly, was kind of cheeseball.  

Of course horror expert S. T. Joshi loves Lovecraft, so what do I know?  He goes in for that whole "cosmic" horror thing associated with writers like Lovecraft and usually doesn't think so much of mild ghost stories, or so I thought.  

Well, guess who wrote the introduction to Lost Ghosts, this 2018 volume by Hippocampus Press of, apparently, the complete supernatural fiction of Mary Wilkins Freeman?  You guessed it: S. T. Joshi!  And Joshi is pretty favorable to her work, although he is also gratuitously dismissive of a prior Freeman collection by Arkham House.

I have mentioned in the past that when I read Agatha Christie's At Bertram's Hotel as a preteen, I hated it, despite loving Christie, and I didn't like Freeman's work back when I read it in the 1990s.  I found both dull, but I realize now that I was too young to appreciate the richness in the portraiture of the interior milieu.  It's a drab world Freeman depicts, the dying rural New England of the 1880s and 1890s, a world of spinster women, single schoolteachers and widows, always sewing, sewing, sewing; but it's so richly and powerfully evoked.  Freeman is remarkable adept, as Joshi notes, at using supernatural trappings to advance her messages about the lives of women and children in New England at that time.  

Men often don't appear in these tales at all, or are decided back numbers.  That's the case with some of the first and earliest stories in the collection, which are not what I would call "classic" ghost stories but are interesting nonetheless.  "A Symphony in Lavender" (1883) is about a premonition a woman once had about a man who was courting her and so too, really, is the very poignant "A Far-Away Melody" (1883), about two spinster sisters who live together in mutual contentment, until one of them starts to hear the far-away melody of the title.  "A Gentle Ghost" (1889), about women and little girls (men are present but never notice anything), ultimately is a faux ghost story.

Mary Wilkins Freeman house

These and other early stories are good, but not quite the real thing.  The heart of the book really is the six stories collected in The Wind in the Rose-Bush, which means while this current volume is worth reading, you won't suffer over much, I think, if you just track down an old copy of Rose-BushAcademy Chicago, for example, reprinted the book back in the 1980s.  It's a better quality volume than the Hippocampus one, though the latter has a niftier cover illustration.

The six stories in Rose-Bush are the title story (1902), "The Vacant Lot" (1902), "Luella Miller" (1902), "The Shadows on the Wall" (1903), "The Southwest Chamber" (1903) and "The Lost Ghost" (1903).  All the stories, with the exception of "Luella Miller," are mostly subtle tales of hauntings, where the frights some from accumulations of domestic details that are not quite right. "Luella Miller," a fascinating story, has been classified as a vampire tale, and it is about a woman who draws others to serve her and waste away.  There's something quite unnerving about it.

Of the others, the weakest is probably "The Vacant Lot," but it's also the most "fun."  It's about a family from the country who got a great deal on a house in Boston and of course the house turns out to be haunted.  I was reminded of the early Eighties Spielberg film Poltergeist.  The determination of the thrifty New England father (one of the rare major male characters) to stay on in the house he ostensibly got such a good deal on is amusing, but this story seems more superficial than the others.

Actually several stories might be deemed simultaneously supernatural stories and crime stories and I couldn't help thinking how Mary Wilkins Freeman could have given Anna Katherine Green a run for her money as a mystery writer, especially seeing how good writing was not Green's forte.  But then maybe Freeman couldn't have stuck it on plotting a mystery!

In any event, the title story, "The Shadows on the Wall" and "The Lost Ghost" make pretty nifty crime stories too.  In the title story, retired schoolteacher Rebecca Flint returns from Michigan to New England to take her pretty young niece Agnes back home with her, but Agnes' stepmother, Emeline Dent, is curiously reticent about Agnes' whereabouts....

In "The Shadows on the Wall," which I recalled from a 1970 episode of Night Gallery, a sort of Greek chorus of three sisters comments on the conflict between their late brother Edward and their other brother Henry and that shadow that won't seem to leave the wall....I find this a really creepy tale which takes full advantage of the insularity and confinement of those old New England houses.

I will have to watch the Night Gallery episode again, which you can find on Youtube.  It's called Certain Shadows on the Wall and starred Agnes Moorehead, Louis Hayward, Grayson Hall and Rachel Roberts.  Quite  a cast, but the plot is considerably changed.  "The Lost Ghost" has a plot concerning criminal wickedness that could have have been ripped right out of headlines from the day and is unnerving and moving too, a very strong portrait of people in dying New England.  

Finally, I quite liked "The Southwest Chamber," about two New England spinsters and their niece who move in to the old family home, recently inherited from the sisters' late aunt.  This story has a quite persistent and malevolent spectre at work!

Definitely recommended.  You'll be reminded of some of the ghostly fiction of Edith Wharton, if you have read that.  And if you haven't read that, you should!