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!

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Paperback Novelties: The Dell Great Mystery Library, 1957 to 1968 (?)

The Dell Great Mystery Library was an early attempt to "codify" great mystery fiction.  When it was launched in 1957 it was described as "an exciting new venture in softcover publishing, bringing you the world's most distinguished mystery fiction as determined by:


author, editor and critic, recognized as America's foremost mystery authority


Academy Award-winning actor, and star of such motion picture mystery successes as 
The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and The Desperate Hours


poet, biographer, essayist, anthologist and mystery fan

design by William Teason

Well, Anthony Boucher, natch, he was like the Otto Penzler or Martin Edwards of his day in the U. S., in terms of dominating the mystery criticism and reprint field, but the weird thing about this is that Humphrey Bogart died at the age of 57 on January 14, 1957--the same month in which the first three books in the Dell series were published!

It is a little hard to believe that the deeply terminally ill Bogart was spending his time selecting books for Dell's great mystery series, but this is what the publisher tells us.  His photo continued to appear on the back covers of the books in Dell series at least through number 7, six months after his death, with Dell assuring its readers that the late actor was still helping Boucher and Untermeyer to select the books!  

By numbers 9 and 10, however, Bogie's pic had been replaced with a new judge:

Boris Karloff

star of stage and screen. master of the spine-tingling art, whose hits include Frankenstein and Arsenic and Old Lace

Red menace Louis Untermeyer insidiously 
subverting quiz show What's My Line?
As for Louis Untermeyer, he was a prominent Jewish public intellectual who had been blacklisted from television for having had Communist associations back in the Thirties.  Gasp!

In 1950 Untermeyer had been fired, due to pressure from right-wing organizations like the Catholic Veterans, from the popular TV quiz show What's My Line? and replaced with Bennett Cerf

Doubtlessly this made America vastly safer from the looming specter of the Red Menace.  (Cause Untermeyer's "line" was Communism, see?!)  So I suppose it was daring having him on the Dell panel of judges.  Anthony Boucher was a noted liberal and likely was sympathetic to his fellow essayist's plight.

Does anyone, by the by, really think it was anyone other than Anthony Boucher who was making all the selections?  This is yet another example of Boucher's great influence in the world of crime fiction in the Fifties and Sixties, as least in the U. S.

Cornell George Hopley Woolrich scores 
two titles in the top ten

Anyway, the first ten books in the series were all published in 1957.  These were, in order:

#1 The Bride Wore Black, by Cornell Woolrich (January)

#2 Trial by Fury, by Craig Rice (January)

#3 Laura, by Vera Caspary (January)

#4 A Puzzle for Fools, by Patrick Quentin (March)

#5 Warrant for X, by Philip Macdonald (April)

Vera Caspary gets a bigger font
#6 Headed for a Hearse, by Jonathan Latimer (May)

#7 The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (June)

#8 A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler (July)

#9  The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers (September)

#10 Phantom Lady, by William Irish (October)

A good list, I think, though with a distinctly American bias.  Macdonald, Ambler and Patrick Quentin are the only British authors, although the Quentin book is set in the States and the two men behind Patrick Quentin lived together in the States when the book was originally published,.  

Just three women made it onto the list (Craig Rice being a woman of course), but then this was the Fifties and the panelists were all men, so maybe this was not such a bad showing under the circumstances.  Still, you might have thought they would have stuck one woman on the panel, even if it was just for show.

The next ten books in the series were:

#11 Before the Fact, Francis Iles

#12 Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie

#13 Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout

#14 Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes

#15 The Beast Must Die, by Nicholas Blake

#16 The Bellamy Trial, by Frances Noyes Hart

#17 Death of a Ghost, by Margery Allingham

#18 Background to Danger, by Eric Ambler

#19 The Mystery of the Dead Police (X v. Rex), by Philip Macdonald

#20 The Man in the Queue, by Josephine Tey

Which went a good way toward redressing the imbalance between American and British writers and a bit of the sex imbalance too.  As for other books in the series, at some point Dell stopped numbering them but here are the "twenties" titles:

#21 A Hole in the Ground, by Andrew Garve

#22 A Gentle Murderer, by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

#23 One More Unfortunate, by Edgar Lustgarten

#24 The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle

#25 The Red House Mystery, by A. A. Milne

#26 The Iron Gates, by Margaret Millar

#27 Journey into Fear, by Eric Ambler

#28 Bedelia, by Vera Caspary

#29 The Three Coffins, by John Dickson Carr

Did Dell number up to 30?  I do not know.  I am surprised it took Carr so long to make the cut, especially with Boucher being such a great Carr admirer and pal.  Of the first 29, then, we ended up with 15 books authored by English writers to 14 American/Canadian, as even a split as could be, and 11 books authored by women writers to 18 men.  

Authors with multiple titles are Eric Ambler (3), Cornell Woolrich/William Irish (2), Vera Caspary (2), Philip Macdonald (2).  More feminine domestic suspense than masculine hardboiled by far, even while the British Crime Queens are underrepresented (Christie, Allingham, Tey).  A couple of chestnut titles by the late oldsters Mary Roberts Rinehart and Arthur Conan Doyle, actually three if we count A. A. Milne's mystery or even four if we add The Bellamy Trial.

Some later, unnumbered ones are:

Evvie, by Vera Caspary

The Eighth Circle, by Stanley Ellin

The Second Man, by Edward Grierson

The Bad Seed, by William March

Someone Like You, by Roald Dahl

Kiss, Kiss, by Roald Dahl

Evelyn Piper, The Motive

The Promise of Murder (Melora), by Mignon Eberhart

Trial and Error, by Anthony Berkeley

The Hours before Dawn, by Celia Fremlin

How Like an Angel, by Margaret Millar

The Fiend, by Margaret Millar

No Next of Kin, by Dorothy Cameron Disney

Before I Die, Helen McCloy

The Pavilion, by Hilda Lawrence 

The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Sleep Long, My Love, by Hillary Waugh

Case Pending, by Dell Shannon

Nightmare, by Cornell Woolrich

This takes us up to forty-eight books.  Were there more?  Probably!

Vera Caspary makes it up to 3 titles, along with Margaret Millar and Cornell Woolrich, while Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles scores 2.  That puts them at the top with Eric Ambler (3) and Philip Macdonald (2). Another chestnut is The Lodger and there are a couple of police procedurals in Sleep Long, My Love and Case Pending.  And lots of domestic suspense!  At this point Dell seemed to be overwhelmingly concentrating on books from more recent years, from the Sixties and Fifties.

After the first ten, Dell evidently decided the uniform cover design, by brilliant modernists Push Pin Studios, was too plain, so they hired more traditional illustrative artists.  

The beautiful Bedelia cover was done by William Teason, perhaps Dell's top paperback "gun" at the time.  The pics of the panel of judges disappeared from the back covers at some point, but I bet brainy Boucher was still in back of it all, pulling strings....

One tip-off to this being all Boucher is there is not a single Philo Vance mystery by S. S. Van Dine--Boucher definitely thought that was one series which served a good kick in the pance!