Saturday, October 31, 2009

Time for ghosts and things that go bump in the night.

It's the night when all sorts of things go walking about, so I thought this would be the perfect time to post an excerpt or two from my favorite ghost story, even though it really isn't about ghosts. Just what it is about, well, I'm not sure. I hope you do go and read the story. The author is Algernon Blackwood and the story is "The Willows."

The narrator and his friend are on an extended boating trip down the Danube River. This was not by far their first trip, but it developed into a very different one from all of the others they had taken.

Night is coming on, so they elected to camp out overnight on an island in the middle of the river and set out the next morning. However, it didn't quite turn out that way.

"With this multitude of willows, however, it was something far different, I felt. Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart. A sense of awe awakened, true, but of awe touched somewhere by a vague terror. Their serried ranks, growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving furiously yet softly in the wind, woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain--where we ran grave risks perhaps!"

During the night, he was awakened by something:

"I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; and, one and all, each in its own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress. But the willows especially; for ever they went on chattering and talking among themselves, laughing a little, shrilly crying out, sometimes sighing--but what it was they made so much to-do about belonged to the secret life of the great plain they inhabited. And it was utterly alien to the world I knew, or to that of the wild yet kindly elements. They made me think of a host of beings from another plane of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known only to themselves. I watched them moving busily together, oddly shaking their big bushy heads, twirling their myriad leaves even where there was no wind. They moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.

There they stood in the moonlight, like a vast army surrounding our camp, shaking their innumerable silver spears defiantly, formed all ready for an attack."


Strange thoughts like these, bizarre fancies, borne I know not whence, found lodgment in my mind as I stood listening. What, I thought, if, after all, these crouching willows proved to be alive; if suddenly they should rise up, like a swarm of living creatures, marshaled by the gods whose territory we had invaded, sweep towards us off the vast swamps, booming overhead in the night--and then settle down! As I looked it was so easy to imagine they actually moved, crept nearer, retreated a little, huddled together in masses, hostile, waiting for the great wind that should finally start them a-running. I could have sworn their aspect changed a little, and their ranks deepened and pressed more closely together."
For a change, I thought, had somehow come about in the arrangement of the landscape. It was not that my point of vantage gave me a different view, but that an alteration had apparently been effected in the relation of the tent to the willows, and of the willows to the tent. Surely the bushes now crowded much closer--unnecessarily, unpleasantly close. They had moved nearer."

And later...

"Creeping with silent feet over the shifting sands, drawing imperceptibly nearer by soft, unhurried movements, the willows had come closer during the night. But had the wind moved them, or had they moved of themselves? I recalled the sound of infinite small patterings and the pressure upon the tent and upon my own heart that caused me to wake in terror. I swayed for a moment in the wind like a tree, finding it hard to keep my upright position on the sandy hillock. There was a suggestion here of personal agency, of deliberate intention, of aggressive hostility, and it terrified me into a sort of rigidity."

It's a great tale for reading by campfire or in the safety of one's home with only a candle burning and a cat purring in one's lap. It can be found online at the following link:


Friday, October 30, 2009

Vanda Symon: The Ringmaster

Sometimes cloning sounds like a good idea. This past week I could have used a clone or two. It's been a week since my last entry here because I've been reading and watching films. If I read or watch films, then I can't put an entry here at the same time. Of course the opposite is also true.

Following are a few comments about one of the books I've read.

Vanda Symon
The Ringmaster
police procedural
Dunedin, New Zealand

I think Vanda Symon is the first crime writer from New Zealand that I've read, or at least the first one who has set her novels in New Zealand. I read many of Ngaio Marsh's mysteries years ago, but most were set in England. I think a few were set in New Zealand, but I don't remember anything about them. By the way, a number of Marsh's "Inspector Alleyn" stories have appeared on BBC and are now available on DVD.

Symon's novels feature Sam Shepherd, a young and inexperienced police officer, who has several handicaps, of which one of the most serious ones is her mouth.

The Ringmaster is the second novel in the series. The first was Overkill and the third is Containment, which is expected to come out in December 2009. In the first novel, Shepherd was the constable for a small town and actually was the only police presence there. Therefore, she was on her own most of the time. Now, she has gotten her promotion to Detective Constable and has been transferred to Dunedin for training--her dream come true. Except, that as in the real world, it hasn't quite turned out that way. There are a few downsides to her "idyllic" situation, some of which she brings with her and some belong to her new situation.

One is the usual problem of being the new kid on the block, which is usually a problem for anybody, but even more so for Shepherd. She is a detective constable, so she's no longer a constable, and it also means she's not exactly a detective either. So, neither group really sees her as one of their own. Secondly, she got her promotion ahead of others who had seniority over her, which leads to the usual gossip about a female who gets promoted quickly--"Who's she sleeping with?"

Another work problem is her senior officer Detective Inspector Greg Johns. I haven't read the first novel in the series, but Symon does provide us with a few clues, especially about Shepherd's previous encounter with Johns. It seems that Shepherd told Johns a few months ago that "he could go rot in hell" and that "he was a hack with a paper degree who couldn't solve a mystery if it was tattooed across his forehead." The clincher was probably when she "insulted his favourite poncy briefcase." I've never been a police officer, but I don't think this is a good way for the lowest ranking officer to address a senior officer.

Along with her work related problems are a few personal issues. One is her mother from hell, who wields guilt as skillfully as any brain surgeon, or perhaps even more skillfully. Then add in a member of her family with a serious medical problem. She also has a suitor, an unwelcome one, she insists. He's the Don Juan of the police force, and he's been pursuing her since they first met. Shepherd's best friend has a solution to the problem: give him what he wants--go to bed with him and he'll disappear the next morning and never bother her again. Will she or won't she?

The novel opens with Shepherd assigned to a job normally given to a constable--that of dealing with animal rights activists demonstrating at a circus. One has donned a gorilla suit and has locked himself in a cage. Shepherd comes up with a funny solution to the problem.

However, a more serious crime is the focus of the novel--a young woman is murdered. Johns, her boss, is stuck with her on his team and decides to make her life as miserable as possible. She gets all the tedious jobs he can find. What he finds most irritating is that she does the work and discovers some important clues along the way. One seems to be some sort of connection with that circus. As to be expected, there are a number of twists and turns and false leads along the way and a most unusual series of murders.

Overall Rating: Detective Constable Sam Shepherd makes the novel work, and I definitely intend to read the first one in the series, and the third when it appears in December.

For those interested in crime fiction from New Zealand, I can highly recommend the following blog--Crimewatch. Simply go to my blog list and click on the name on the list on the right side of the screen.

Vanda Symon's website

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XVII

This is another quatrain to which FitzGerald made only minor changes over the five editions.

First Edition: Quatrain XVII

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep;
And Bahram, that great Hunter--the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.

Second Edition: Quatrain XIX

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter--the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, but cannot break his sleep.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XVIII

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter--the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, but cannot break his sleep.

Aside from a minor punctuation change, the only significant variance occurs in the Second Edition and is carried through to the Fifth. In the First Edition, the last line reads

"Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep."

while the last line in the Second and Fifth has been changed to

"Stamps o'er his Head, but cannot break his sleep."

There seems to be no conscious intention to the Wild Ass's actions in the First edition--the Wild Ass stamps and Bahram remains "fast asleep." However, in the Second Edition, which remains the same through the Fifth, FitzGerald changes it to sound almost as if the Wild Ass tries but fails to awaken him.

The theme of this quatrain is one that FitzGerald has given us earlier: the glories of the human past, Jamshyd's Courtyard, now belongs to the Lion, a mighty beast whom perhaps Jamshyd had hunted, and the Lizard, one of Nature's more humble creatures. There's a touch of irony here. Jamshyd was a legendary king of Persia who ruled for over seven hundred years and now only ruins remain of that reign, and those are occupied by Nature's creations, both large and small. In addition, Bahram was known as a hunter of the wild onager or ass during his life time, and now the Wild Ass stamps on his grave, as if to waken him for one more hunt, "but cannot break his sleep."

The Bahram referred to here is probably King Bahram V who ruled Persia from 421-438 AD. He persecuted Christians and this resulted in an invasion by the Romans. After a failed attempt at negotiation, Bahram led the Persians to decisively defeat the Roman army, after which a peace treaty was signed.

Like snow in the desert, we come, we stay a short while, and we go, never to return.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kim Newman: Anno Dracula

I must admit that I'm one of those old fogies who believes that the best vampire story ever written was by Bram Stoker and the ones that came after really don't match up to it. However, I belong to a SF/F book group and am occasionally forced, therefore, to read vampire tales, more or less under duress. Generally, the stories have reinforced my opinion. Occasionally, though, a story does come close to capturing the flavor of Stoker's novel. Kim Newman's Anno Dracula is one of those rare exceptions.

The story has a rather unusual premise. It, of course, answers one of the two basic questions that SF/Fantasy/Horror asks--"What if?" Actually it answers the question twice: What if vampires exist and what if Van Helsing had failed to kill Count Dracula. Usually alternative history tales turn on events in the real world: What would it be like if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? If Hitler had invaded and conquered England? If the US had been conquered by Japan and Germany in WWII?

This alternative universe story turns not on a real event but on a fictional event--Count Dracula's defeat by Van Helsing in Stoker's novel. The premise is Count Dracula's actions after surviving the attack. As a member of the aristocracy, he would have access to the royal court and to the widowed Queen Victoria. Newman postulates that Count Dracula would have persuaded (hypnotized?) Queen Victoria to marry him. Once he has succeeded, Dracula then becomes the ruler of the British Empire.

Newman does a very credible job of presenting the reactions of the British public to this situation. There are those who are opposed to the union and also to the growing power of the vampires in the Empire. The problem is that being a vampire has certain advantages--an extremely long life, if not actual immortality, and an ability to survive wounds and physical damage that would have killed ordinary humans.

Under these circumstances, many of the English are now opting to become vampires--the "newly born." Opposed to them are the "warms," those who choose to remain human. The "newly borns" are close to gaining almost complete control of the government, such that promotions and position upgrades are almost out of reach for the "warms." In England, everybody fears a civil war between the vampires and the warms. In addition, growing resentment throughout the Empire against the vampires is beginning to fracture it.

Set against this background are a series of horrific murders. Three, or perhaps four, vampire prostitutes have been murdered in Whitechapel, perhaps butchered would be a better term. The murderer, aware of the physical capabilities of the vampires, goes to great lengths to ensure the impossibility of the body to heal itself. Scotland Yard has no clues. The killer comes, kills, and disappears.

One might almost consider this a mystery story, but one that is so deeply steeped in the turn-of-the century fictional London that the setting almost overshadows the attempts to identify and stop the killer.

Charles Beauregard--adventurer, spy, investigator--is a member of the mysterious Diogenes Club. He is summoned one night to a meeting. The Inner Circle of the club assigns him the task of ferreting out the killer. Shortly afterwards, Beauregard takes a cab, a hansom cab of course, and is taken, unwillingly, to a meeting of the Criminal Elite, the rulers of the underworld. They also are concerned about the killings because the police have suddenly become very active-- arresting people, searching various establishments, and thereby disturbing the normal comfortable relationship between the police and the underworld. Beauregard is informed that the killings are bad for business and that he is expected to do something about them--quickly.

My first clue to the nature of Newman's novel arrived early. Beauregard, at home shortly afterwards, has a visitor. It is Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard--yes, the same Lestrade who didn't think much of Sherlock Holmes' newfangled methods, but, being in the neighborhood, dropped by every once in awhile to discuss a particularly puzzling case with him. Unfortunately he can't drop by Baker Street now because Holmes is in Sussex, not on a bee farm but in a concentration camp for those deemed dangerous to the regime. Holmes, it seems, disagreed with the present government about certain policies.

There are other familiar names in Newman's novel. One of the members of the Inner Circle of the Diogenes Club is Mycroft, Holmes' brother. Some of the members of the Criminal Elite are also well-known to readers of Doyle--Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran. A third member is Chinese, a member of the Si-Fan, the Evil Doctor. Those who have read stories by Sax Rohmer will no doubt recognize Dr. Fu Manchu.

Those who have read Stoker's novel will also find some familiar names. Bram Stoker himself is in the same concentration camp as Holmes. Van Helsing has been executed. Mina Harkness is doing well as a vampire. Florence Stoker (Bram's real wife) is popular among the upper classes as a hostess but is losing her clout because many of the upper classes are turning vampire and her husband's opposition to the vampires is an embarrassment. Jack Seward, the head of the mental institution in Stoker's novel, is now the medical director of a clinic for the poor.

Seward is not the only medical man on the scene, for both Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau make a brief appearance. In fact, Beauregard goes to Dr. Jekyll's laboratory at one point and meets Dr. Moreau there. They also are interested in the Whitechapel killer.

Anno Dracula is not a true "whodunit" for the reader learns early on the identity of the Whitechapel murderer. The interest really is in the depiction of a society that learns that vampires exist and that it must deal with them. One particularly memorable scene occurs at a party when a toast is given. The vampire there does not drink and so is left out. The hostess recognizes the problem and motions a servant over to the vampire. The servant calmly unbuttons the sleeve of her dress and allows the vampire to take some blood from her wrist.

In addition, wondering about the identity of the next fictional character I would meet also kept me turning pages.

Overall Rating: highly recommended for those who enjoy vampire stories. Newman does a superb job of capturing the feel of Stoker's tale and also that of the late 19th century London, both real and fictional.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lin Yutang: October 10, 1895--March 26, 1976

The following is from the Wikipedia entry on Lin Yutang:

"Lin Yutang...was a Chinese writer and inventor. His informal but polished style in both Chinese and English made him one of the most influential writers of his generation and his compilations and translations of Classic Chinese texts into English were bestsellers in the West."

To be honest, I don't know just how "influential" he really was during his life time; I had never heard of him, which really doesn't mean that much, until I began doing some research for a paper while in grad school during the '80s. I found a Modern Library edition of his translation of the The Wisdom of Laotse, which is probably better known as The Tao Te Ching. While there have been later editions which incorporate manuscript discoveries made after Lin Yutang had died, I still grab his translation first and then check the more recent versions. Not only is it one of the more readable translations, his version includes commentaries for each chapter that consist of his thinking as well as quotes from other Taoist writings.

He has published over 30 books in English, ranging from a Chinese-English dictionary to the work mentioned above to collections of short stories to The Importance of Living, which is the application of Chinese philosophy and wisdom applied to the 20th century, and now the 21st century. The following is a quotation from The Importance of Living. It's an excellent example of his philosophy and of his relaxed and informal writing style. I suspect it has had a subtle influence on me, one that I probably still don't realize just how much that was, and is.

"If we must have a view of the universe, let us forget ourselves and not confine it to human life. Let us stretch it a little and include in our view the purpose of the entire creation--the rocks, the trees, and the animals. There is a scheme of things (although 'scheme' is another word, like 'end' and 'purpose,' which I strongly distrust)--I mean there is a pattern of things in the creation, and we can arrive at some sort of opinion, however lacking in finality, about this entire universe, and then take our place in it. This view of nature and our place in it must be natural, since we are a vital part of it in our life and go back to it when we die. Astronomy, geology, biology, and history all provide pretty good material to help us form a fairly good view if we don't attempt too much and jump at conclusions. It doesn't matter if, in this bigger view of the purpose of the creation, man's place recedes a little in importance. It is enough that he has a place, and by living in harmony with nature around him, he will be able to form a workable and reasonable outlook on human life itself."
from The Importance of Living, a Quill Edition, William Morrow, New York, 1937

Yutang looks for a natural pattern of things and suggests that "...we can arrive at some sort of opinion, however lacking in finality... a fairly good view if we don't attempt too much and jump at conclusions." How different this is from what we hear today from so many purveyors of absolute truths and ultimate or final proclamations of the way things are: nothing more need be known, for they know it all.

I can't say that I agree with everything in the work, but even at places where I vehemently disagree with him, I find that I don't seem to need to argue with him as I do with many other writers. Perhaps it's because he doesn't appear to try to 'convert" me but simply tells me what he thinks and why he thinks that way.

If you are looking for something to read that's a little different and something that encourages a more reasonable and relaxed philosophy, you might glance at The Importance of Living. After all, the front cover blurb is "The Classic Bestseller That Introduced Millions to the Noble Art of Leaving Things Undone."

Looking around my place, it's clear that Lin Yutang has had a significant influence on me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Dark City definitely belongs in the Most Interesting SF Film Category. I have now seen the theatrical version twice and just recently viewed the Director's Cut. I will watch it again for it is one of those few films that rewards multiple viewings.

The overall plot is an intriguing one, but not because it's new or unique. On the contrary, I'll bet that most of you can come up with a number of stories and films that feature the following plot. The main character wakes up in a motel or hotel room and finds a dead body in the bed. The main character frequently has no idea of the identity of the body or at least has no idea of how they came to be sharing the same room. Last night is a blank. The major question is the identity of the killer--is it the main character? In some cases, the main character has complete amnesia and doesn't even know who he or she is.

To heighten the tension and complicate the plot, writers sometimes will throw in a secret group or organization which plays a role in the situation that now needs to be uncovered. The secret group is usually hostile to the main character. The main character then spends the rest of the story, usually one step ahead of the police and this secret group, if there is one, trying to unravel the mystery before being captured or killed, either by the police or by the secret group.

In Dark City, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up or comes to in a hotel room. The other occupant is a dead woman. He gets a phone call from a Doctor Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) who tells him that the experiment went wrong and he's lost his memory. Moreover, he needs to leave the room immediately because the Others are coming to get him. Murdoch leaves, just ahead of three men who enter the room. They remind me very strongly of Nosferatu, the vampire in the German film which came out in 1922. The three men or two men and a child are dressed in long black leather? coats which reach nearly to the ground and large black hats with wide brims. Their complexion is chalk white. One might guess that these are bad guys that one doesn't want to mess with.

Shortly afterwards, the police (William Hurt) appear on the scene, and we learn this is the 5th or 6th prostitute that has been killed this way. There's a serial killer loose, and now they have a suspect--John Murdoch. Murdoch finds his wallet in his coat and learns that he is John Murdoch and that he has a home and a wife (Jennifer Connelly).

Now the game begins. Who is John Murdoch and why did he find himself in a hotel room with a body and with no memory? Who is the doctor who called him? What does his wife know? Who is the group that is after him? In other words, it is a Quest, and the goal of the quest is identity.

The City seems to be set in the 1940s and 50s, with some elements from later periods. It was constructed out of the memories of the inhabitants. Each night, the City changes as some buildings sink down into the ground while others emerge. Some grow larger while others shrink. This is urban renewal on a grand scale.

It is always night for the aliens are bothered by sunlight. There seems to be borrowings here from the vampire myths, especially since the aliens strongly resemble the vampire in the film Nosferatu and fear sunlight. In a sense they can be seen as drinking human memories rather than human blood.

Alex Proyas, the director, has also separated the world of the humans from the aliens' world with lighting. The various colors found in the human world lack intensity or saturation while the lighting in the alien underworld gives everything a bluish-greenish look, in which the aliens in their long black coats and black hats blend in, but their chalk-white complexions almost appear luminous, like some evil phosphorescent fungus that lives solely in the dark. It is the lighting that is most responsible for uncanny look of the film, that and the combination of the 1940s-60s elements present. It's surprising the effect one can get simply by using the old black telephones. Something is wrong somewhere. This is an alien world.

The Director's cut has eleven minutes in it that were cut from the theatrical version. Most of the changes were minimal and involved extending a scene for some added dialogue. The major difference actually was the removal of the voice-over introduction in the theatrical version that was added at the studio's insistence. The powers-that-be felt that US audiences wouldn't put up with not knowing everything at the beginning. One effect that I noticed was that Inspector Bumsted (William Hurt) started catching on a bit earlier in the director's cut than he did in the theatrical version.

Overall Rating: If you are interested in SF films with some ideas that try to go beyond ray guns and slavering monsters, I would recommend this film, highly.


The film gives new meaning to the theme of identity theft. The human inhabitants of the City are actually subjects in an experiment conducted by aliens. The aliens have kidnapped the humans and placed them in the City, sort of a large scale version of a maze that psychologists construct for experiments on white rats. In fact, early in the film we see just such a maze with two white rats. Feel free to read into that scene what you wish. This maze appears several times throughout the film, including on the bodies of the dead prostitutes.

In what is probably the greatest example of identity theft (the real kind--not the identity borrowing that goes on today), all humans have had their memories extracted and turned into chemicals. The aliens have allowed one human, a psychiatrist, to retain only his knowledge of the human mind, and he then mixes up a few ingredients--an unhappy childhood, early loss of parents, an unhappy love affair-- and injects a human with this mixture. The human is then observed to see how he or she will act in the circumstances they are inserted into.

Every night at midnight, all humans are thrown into a deep sleep, during which time the aliens insert the false memories and reconstruct the environment to match the memories, if necessary. The aliens are able to do this because they have various mental powers which are augmented by the machines they have devised.

Occasionally something goes wrong, and some humans awaken without the false memories and wander around in a daze until the aliens pick them up. Murdoch is one of those. But, Murdoch is different because he also has the same power as the aliens but doesn't know it. One of his tasks is to learn how to use his power against the aliens.

Murdoch's task is threefold--uncover the mystery behind what is going on, avoid the guys in the long black coats, avoid the police, and learn to use his power so he will be ready for the showdown at the end.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XVI

A few words about Quatrain XVI, the first Edition, and its versions in the Second and Fifth Editions.

First Edition: Quatrain XVI

Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.

Second Edition: Quatrain XVIII

Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XVII

Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

The subsequent versions show only minor differences. "Doorways" become "Portals" in the Second and Fifth Editions. I guess "Portals" is more poetic than "Doorways" which seem a rather ordinary entrance or exit to commonplace structures whereas "Portals" suggests an opening into much wider variety of locales.

The other change occurred in the fourth line: from "Abode his Hour or two, and went his way" in the First Edition to "Abode his destined Hour, and went his way" in the Second and Fifth Editions. The addition of "destined" adds an element of fate or almost suggests a fixed future that wasn't present in the first edition. Moreover, dropping the "or two" from the first edition removes some impreciseness or vagueness--his Hour or two--and leaving only "his destined Hour" seems more fixed or exact. The sultan's time here seems to be a destined and fixed period beginning in the Second and Fifth editions when compared to the First Edition.

This quatrain restates a theme that has already appeared previously: life is short and where we come from and where we go is a mystery. What's interesting is that a caravanserai is an inn that has accommodations for caravans and their draft animals. A caravanserai is therefore a resting place. Life here is therefore a resting place for a brief period before we continue on our journey, from an unknown origin to an unknown destination.

"Pomp" in the third line brought a stanza from another poem to mind--Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Churchyard."

"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave."

I think Gray and FitzGerald/Khayyam had the same idea in mind: it matters not who we are, for we all have the same destination--the grave.