Sunday, August 13, 2017

WALK OUT ON DEATH by Charlotte Armstrong

I've been wanting to read some Charlotte Armstrong for a while, after reading some good things about her work. This was the first I picked up....and I wasn't too thrilled by it.

Walk Out on Death (originally titled Catch-As-Catch-Can) isn't much of a mystery, but a thriller in which a series of circumstances lead to a perilous situation. It opens with a fairly silly situation: world traveler Jonas Breen has brought home Laila, his beautiful daughter (or so he claims) from a quickie marriage in the South Seas (or so he claims). Seriously, everyone seems to take this at face value. But anyway, he dies, and innocent and very naive 18-year-old Laila inherits a half million dollars. (For 1952, that was a fortune.) She is surrounded by various cousins: Clive Breen, Dee Allison, and Andrew Talbot. Laila has a crush on Andy, who's been having a turbulent relationship with Dee, and Clive, who always needs money. There's also Pearl Dean, a friend of Jonas, a spiritualist who may or may not have designs on the Breen cash.

After realizing she's made a fool of herself over Andy, Laila leaves the house for a long walk, and while she's gone the people in the house are in a panic as the housekeeper collapsed and died. It turned out she had eaten some improperly-canned beans and got botulism as a result...and Laila had just eaten some of the same beans. Soon Dee and Andy are searching for her to get her to a hospital for treatment. (This was a reality in the day; people could and did die from botulism, and their only hope was to be rushed to a hospital for an injection of an antivenin before 24 hours were through.)

Clive finds out...and decides to keep Laila on ice until she dies from the poison, so he can inherit. But then she takes off on her own, hooking up with her friend Pearl and hiding in Pearl's trailer while she drives off to the beach.

Dee and Andy have a series of misadventures while looking for Laila, and there's a prolonged chase, a dramatic traffic accident, a creepy laundry truck driver, and a conclusion in a house about to be flooded with a powerful insecticide fog before it all ends happily.

It's a bit of a mess, but at least it's an energetic mess. It moves quickly although sometimes the plot contrivances are just too damn contrived and convenient, including Laila nursing a broken heart in the morning and finding true love in the afternoon. I did like how a witness to the aforementioned accident, an elderly mute woman, is regularly dismissed and ignored by everyone around her until finally someone stops and thinks to ask if she happened to see anything. Maybe a bit overly obvious that she's standing in for how so many women and their contributions are overlooked and ignored, and also for society's dismissive attitude toward the elderly, but it was still nicely done.

But all in all, the story is too muddled and too contrived to hit bullseye, but it is energetic and fast-moving enough to make an acceptable time-killer for a lazy afternoon. It's a fairly brief read, about 184 pages, and out of print, but you may come across an old copy in your local friendly used book emporium.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

An August Evening at the Phantom Tavern...

It's an unexpectedly cool night in early August; normally we should feel like we're imprisoned in a celestial Crock Pot, but it's actually breezy and autumnal. No big concerts or anything, so tonight we wander out for a drink at a place we haven't been to before; it's an old, slightly ramshackle place, but the drinks are good, the prices reasonable, and they feature some good music.

Tonight, we're stepping outside the usual comfort zone and listening to some country/'s a classic murder ballad....

Kind of chilling, eh? Surprisingly how many gruesome old ballads are out there like this. This is a 19th century ballad that got some play during the 20th century folk revival, and still pops up every now and then.

We have a good time and definitely will be back.....

Monday, July 24, 2017

PROMISE NOT TO TELL by Jennifer McMahon

Promise Not To Tell was a something I'd had recommended to me somewhere (I forget where), and on a recent library run I checked it out. I'm pretty glad I did.

Kate Cypher, divorced, a 41-year-old school nurse, has flown from her job in Seattle to her mother's home in Vermont. Mom has Alzheimer's, and is steadily getting worse; Kate has to arrange a new living situation for her. But the day she arrives in town, a teenaged girl is an identical fashion to how a friend of Kate's was murdered 30 years before. Undoubtedly there's a connection...but what?

What makes this different is there's a definite supernatural element. Del Griswold (derisively called "the Potato Girl" due to a constant smell that hung about her) was from a white-trash family, definitely troubled, held back in school, and her murder seems sadly a release from a horrible life with no prospects. But she was desperate for a friend, and young Kate Cypher was willing to play along. Kate, however, was also keenly aware that Del was extremely unpopular, and hanging out with her was social death, so she tried to shrug it off as "we waited at the bus stop, I barely knew her" kind of thing. But when an adult Kate returns, Del shows up in the edges of Kate's vision, and while you might at first think that it's symptomatic of Kate's guilt over her betrayal of Del's trust as a child and her lifelong denial of knowing anything about her after her murder, it turns out that Del really IS coming back, and soon possesses Kate's mother to communicate. It's clear that the ghostly visitations are indeed real.

What did I like? The atmosphere (Kate's mom lived in a failed utopian commune/settlement), the way the supernatural is handled, and how McMahon presents Del as having become a figure of local folklore, somewhere in between Bloody Mary and the Blair Witch. And the ins and outs of Kate's friendship with Del, and her attempts to play the situation to her advantage with the other kids at school, ring true. Childhood can be horribly cruel.

What didn't I like? The solution to the murders is a bit hasty and unsatisfactory. Some plot elements are never explored, like how one of Del's tormentors died, supposedly choking to death on a slice of raw potato; it's mentioned in passing but never developed further. Kate angered me as she persists in hiding things and keeping secrets when she doesn't need to, and there's no sense at the end that's she's learned anything from her experience.

Still, it wasn't overly long; I hate overly padded books. I started it on a Sunday afternoon and finished by bedtime. It moved along briskly and was never drawn-out or dull, and that's pretty damn remarkable.

It was McMahon's first book, and there's a bunch more out there, so I may start looking into them. It's supernatural without real horror; the ghosts are the remains of tragic happenings and circumstances, and the mystery plot is what takes center stage. (There's almost a strain of magical realism here....) So I'm willing to forgive some imperfections for a first novel, especially such a well-paced and atmospheric one. Not bad in the least and worth an afternoon in your reading nook.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Hot July Afternoon at the Movies!

A light lunch at our usual place is in the cards today; it's brutally hot and humid, and rather than engage in other weekend activities, we're opting for something inside.

While we're happy to be together, the heat robs us of our appetites, and after a light nibble we head up the street (staying in the shade as much as possible) until we get to our favorite old theater...thankfully with new air conditioning.

This afternoon's show is the 1936 mystery/horror House of Secrets!

Chesterfield Studios was facing dire financial problems in 1936, so they remade an earlier hit with stronger technical work and a better cast (in some cases, cast against type). It didn't stop Chesterfield's collapse, but at least it endures as their shining hour.

After the show, we slowly walk up the street to our usual cafe for a cold drink...and to maybe linger a while. There's rain in the forecast and maybe it will cool things down a little...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ASYLUM by Patrick McGrath

I've never read Patrick McGrath, but after coming across several mentions praising his ability with the Gothic, I decided to check him out. After all, I've reviewed some of the original Gothics, so I might as well review some modern Gothics as well.

Asylum's timeframe seems to be in the 50s or early 60s, and takes the form of an extended narrative by psychiatrist Peter Cleave, who is reflecting on his patient, Stella Raphael. Stella is the wife of Max Raphael, a doctor at the high security asylum where Cleave works, and they have a son, Charlie. Stella appears to be the happy housewife on the surface, but it soon becomes clear that her marriage is not the happiest, and is devoid of excitement and passion. She becomes infatuated with Edgar Stark, an inmate, a sculptor who murdered his wife and mutilated her body, in the delusional belief that she was unfaithful to him. He even believes he has a son who does not exist. Edgar, who is part of a work detail and is restoring a Victorian conservatory that's part of the Raphael home (which is on asylum grounds). Stella and Edgar begin a passionate sexual affair...but where is it going? How deep do their feelings run? To what degree are they using each other? And how much does Peter Cleave know, as he seems to be keeping an eye on them?

It's an examination of passion and obsession, madness and self-destruction. As is obvious from page one, Stella inevitably ends up in the asylum herself as a patient, after a horrifying crime....and it's ambiguous to what degree it was deliberate and to what degree it was a product of her profound depression and instability at the time. Nobody's really heroic; Stella is self-absorbed, a user, and a borderline alcoholic, Max is a stick-in-the-mud, Edgar is passionate but deranged and dangerous, and Peter is a creep whose lack of professionalism permits things to roll out of control.

McGrath also uses setting and weather to his advantage; there's tons of great descriptions that also lend atmosphere and meaning to the action of the story and the moods of the characters. I love authors whose books have a great sense of place; there's no use having your book take place in Hong Kong or Botswana when for all the description you give and all the use you make of the location, it may as well be in Indiana.

There is some predictability to the story, but that is more or less built in to the narrative. It's hardly a feminist work, either, as Stella only defines herself through relationships. (Unless that's part of the point? That such attitudes are ultimately destructive? Something to ponder....)

It was made into a film in 2005 with Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellan, and Martin Csokas, and I'll have to track it down sometime. The book itself is currently out of print but likely easy to find used, or at the library. (I got an ebook from the library; great system for that.)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Phantom Fireworks!

It's Independence Day, and we're enjoying an outdoor concert leading up to a fireworks display. The heat and humidity have let up a bit so we can enjoy being outside, and the orchestra is in fine form. Sure, there's lots to be unhappy about in the current climate, but we meet some local candidates who seem to be sincere about making a difference, have a good meal, listen to some good music....and then, the fireworks!

The orchestra plays something lively to match the pyrotechnics, and it's actually fairly appropriate...

It may be a Russian composer's interpretation of Spanish music, but it's a lively piece and a good match for exploding rockets, eh?

We wait a while after people need to get caught up in all that traffic, and we have enough time to linger. It's a pleasant night, and we're starting to maybe feel a little optimistic about the future...maybe?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A June Night at the Cinema!

The heat of June has lifted somewhat, and while it's still warm, at least it's a bit drier and there's a pleasant breeze. We elect to sit at an outdoor table when we gather at the usual restaurant, and enjoy a light meal and stimulating conversation. As the sun declines into the west, we pay the bill and wander up the street to that shabby old theater with its comfortable seats....

The ticket-taker with the biceps gives us a stellar smile when we arrive; and we settle in our favorite seats for the show.

Tonight's movie is the 1936 thriller "Revolt of the Zombies"!

From the makers of the now-classic "White Zombie," this didn't do as well, largely because the filmmakers stuck to clunky silent-movie-style techniques that had grown even more outdated in the years since their initial film. However, those techniques now seem almost charming and quaint with the passage of time, and the film has obtained a minor lustre now that it lacked in its own day.

The show over, we start to wander up the street to our usual cafe....and hey, the ticket-taker says he'll join us in a little bit, after he closes up....