2021 October 15 • Friday

On our last visit to Quimby’s Chicago, we picked up several zines by Nyxia Grey.

She was new to us but we liked her style. This is old-school zine practice, with text and photos apparently literally cut and pasted onto pages and then photocopied, with color, and then bound with staples.

This particular one is appropriate to the season and while which witch is which? might sound like the beginning of a joke, Grey is very much in earnest, beginning with the subtitle: “one witch’s take on Salem, Mass”.

Grey fell in love with Salem the first time she went there and as a practicing witch herself she thought it would be a great place to live and work. And so she moved there but was dismayed to discover “power hungry, capitalistic, misogynistic assholes” in the witch community and, well, most other places too.

Part of the problem is greed for tourist dollars, which leads to over the top and extremely distasteful exploitation of the town’s tragic history and revving up for Halloween in September.

The pandemic didn’t change much except for the autumn invasion to include people from places that don’t care about masks and quarantines and social distancing and things like that.

It’s a harrowing yet riveting read. This is something that zines and autobiographical comics do better than other media, a report from the front lines of real life as it’s being lived, transmitted by those whose feet are still on the ground.

Grey is also donating “100% of the proceeds of this zine” to organizations that will aid social justice.
2021 October 13 • Wednesday

Feeling the Halloween spirit over here, I decided to read Lisa Tuttle's short story collection, A Nest of Nightmares.

The title is apt, to say the least. And kudos to publisher Paperbacks from Hell for doing such a wonderful job reprinting a lot of great horror fiction in beautiful editions with thoughtful and well informed introductions. Really a class act all around.

Here's the Gutbrain guide to the stories in this book.

First up is “Bug House”, a creepy and ultimately savage story about a woman fleeing a foundering marriage and seeking refuge with her aunt who lives in an old house by the sea. The title might signal some of Tuttle’s intentions, and she spins the web artfully, with a termite infestation that’s much more visceral and dreadful than are the mere words that describe it. A battle between a spider and a wasp gives a more prominent clue and conveys crucial information. When the story reaches the point where what we’ve learned is to be deployed, Tuttle hits hard and viciously. It’s haunting and horrifying and while no hunt of an explanation for how any of this could happen, it’s easily acceptable since the author matter of factly presents it as in line with the ways of the natural world, red in tooth and claw and with survival and reproduction as the primary imperatives.

“Dollburger” is a shorter story about a young girl terrified by a tale her father invents about men who prowl at night looking for dolls that have been carelessness left outside of their owners’ rooms so that they can throw them in a bag, take them away and make dollburgers out of them, to eat. Young Karen takes this to heart and the disappearance of her favorite doll, only one blue eye remaining, adds credence to the notion. Further evidence presents itself but what’s actually happening is more fantastical and closer to home. By the end of the second story, it should be clear that Tuttle is a writer of great imagination and exquisite control of atmosphere, psychology and image.

In “Community Property” Tuttle sketches a picture of a bad marriage that leads to a nasty divorce with an irreconcilable conflict over the family dog. This sting-in-the-tail story doesn’t surprise much but the precisely and economically rendered presentation of the main character’s thoughts and feelings give it substantial emotional force. This could have been an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents if it weren’t just a bit too far over the line for television.

The next story is the third out of the first four to have a cyclical structure or theme. In “Flying to Byzantium” an author travels to Texas from Los Angeles to be the guest of honor at a science fiction convention. She feels a bit like a fraud because she only wrote one book and it was a means of escape from a depressing, claustrophobic, hopeless life in another small Texas town where she lived with her mother. The book allowed her to effect a complete personal transformation and start over again in California. But she doesn’t think she can write another book as the first one was created by a person she no longer was in an environment she no longer inhabits. But as soon as she gets off the plane and approaches the small town of Byzantium, both her past and the book it produced come shimmering into reality and bit by bit her identity starts to revert, accompanied by dread of inchoate danger.

The next story is another circular one and the first to be told in the first person. In “Treading the Maze”, Amy is exploring the English countryside with her British husband, Phil. At an old inn, Amy sees a figure standing in a field and is inexplicably frightened. Just as puzzling is its immediate disappearance. That night she and Phil see people apparently dancing in the same field under the moonlight, then quicky realize that instead of dancing they’re walking a turf maze, a pattern in the soil. Phil is drawn to it and Amy wants to get the hell away from it. Where it goes from there is reminiscent of both M. R. James and the Eurydice myth.

“The Horse Lord” is also somewhat circular, concerning a family’s move to a forbidding house in a desolate part of upstate New York, locus of an ancient curse and gruesome massacre of an ancestor many generations ago. The denouement is in harmony with the first two stories in this collection and, interestingly, the married couple in the story are both fiction writers.

In “The Other Mother” Tuttle combines a vivid and chilling classic ghost story concept with a Welsh legend and the struggle of a divorced woman to be a single mother to two children while also fulfilling herself as an artist, in this case a painter, a charge that demands as much of her as her son and daughter do.

“Need” is a simple tale about someone’s return from the dead, distinguished by the quality of Tuttle’s writing and the ease and efficiency with which she creates believable and distinct characters with authentic-seeming inner lives.

A haunted piece of furniture is at the center of “The Memory of Wood”, a perfectly crafted story that uses the sense of smell to generate fear much as Shirley Jackson did in The Haunting of Hill House. As in “The Other Mother”, the main character is a woman with a very young son and younger daughter, a baby here, and a useless husband (ex-husband and absent in the earlier story). Helen does just about everything that would probably occur to most readers, and perhaps that’s where real horror begins, with an intrusion of supernatural malevolence into the world we know and live in, destroying people we recognize as ourselves and those around us.

Tuttle uses first-person narration for a second time in “A Friend in Need”, a much gentler story than the others in the collection, though it does involve trauma caused by child abuse. Cecily is in an airport waiting for her mother to arrive on a delayed flight from New York when she runs into her childhood friend Jane. Except that Janes was her imaginary friend. Yet here she is, for real. And Jane’s recounting of how she came to be Cecily’s friend in the first place is weird and fantastical and ultimately mysterious. The story has the feel of a classic ghost story, such as M. R. James again, but ends on an ambiguous and very contemporary and undemonstrative note more in tune with, say, Haruki Murakami. And is Tuttle making a sly reference to Mary Shelley, the creator of the horror genre, when Cecily begins her list of names of childhood friends with “Shelly, Mary”…?

The next story, “Stranger in the House”, is similar to the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance”. Sharon is having a fight with her nasty and abusive boyfriend while revisiting her childhood home and ends up, after an apparent off-the-page car crash, back in time and sees her nine-year-old self. Both stories flip the ghost story to be about the future haunting the past rather than the other way around. Both stories also build to a painful and tragic conclusion but for Sharon, the main character in Tuttle’s story, this is a cruel and monstrous culmination, exploiting childhood fears she’s outgrown as an adult in order to satisfy a deranged and presumably impossible impulse.

Ancient mythology makes an appearance in “Sun City”, in which Nora, wishing she could return to North Carolina from El Paso, where she’s stuck working the night shift at a motel while finalizing her divorce, remembers a brutal assault she witnessed and fled from while on her honeymoon in Mexico years ago. Then comes a daily occurrence of an overpoweringly foul stench and a figure wearing human skin as if it were a cloak. As well written as it is, this is the only story that didn’t quite come together with a satisfying click for me but seemed a little too loose and unfocused. The ending, while disturbing, didn’t seem to be possible and perhaps imagining that impossible occurrence is where the horror should lie, the groundwork wasn’t laid as persuasively as in the other stories.

The last story, “The Nest”, and the third to use first-person narration, also ends in an anti-climax and while the main characters, two sisters sharing an old house in a remote area after the death of their mother, are well drawn, we seem always to be on the fringe of the story. Pam worries that her sister Sylvia is being drawn into something sordid, inhuman and unnatural up in the attic. She even sees the weird shape of something large and winged but unidentifiable flapping from a tree to their roof, presumably to enter through the large hole that hasn’t been repaired yet. There’s a nice echo of an incident from their teenage past in this and that’s the high point of the tale. A Nest of Nightmares begins with a brutal sucker punch of a story and ends with what feels like too much held back.

2021 October 11 • Monday

The 695th Soundtrack of the Week is Bruno Zambrini's score for Fracchia Contro Dracula!

The "Titoli Di Testa" has an ominous lurching quality to it with strings and what sounds like a bassoon creating a rich orchestral atmosphere. This continues in the second track, "Film Horror Al Cinema".

Folksy fiddling, both bowed and plucked, bring us to "Borgo Transilvano". Eventually the two violins are joined by a string ensemble for a catchy peasant dance type of tune. The same melody and arrangement, more or less, returns with a female vocalist in the next cue, "Canzone Di Catarina".

And then there's that massive horror movie organ sound forever in debt to Bach though not, in this case, playing that very familiar piece. Instead, "Il Castello Di Dracula" is an organ solo with a few Bach-ish moments.

Then things get kind of groovy with some cool electronic instruments and a backbeat for the kind of fusion lounge of "Kaspar".

After this comes, "In Carrozza" as short tension cue with sharp, staccato statements from the orchestra. The rhythmic ideas are immediately picked up in the beginning of the next cue, "Nella Cripta", but then taken in more of a traditional classic horror underscore direction.

"Dracula Canta" is the same melody from "Borgo Transilvano" and "Canzone di Catarina", but this time with a male vocalist (presumably Dracula) joining the female vocalist.

It's followed by the energetic suspense music of "Arrivo Di Luna" and then the eerie and spacious dread of "Oniria Seduce Fracchia".

The intensity goes up another notch with maniacal eighth note patterns in "Duello Di Fracchia E Dracula", with a break in the middle for a bit of a breath and a more melodic mood.

The next cue is kind of a crazy avantgarde groove number with swooping and frantically bowed strings on top of a beat before settling into kind of a slow motion march. It's called "Mobili Che Volano".

Then there's an unexpected eruption of synthesizer sounds for the kind of robo-funk pop instrumental number that is "Ragionere In Gabbia".

"Sole Che Sorge" is another very short cue but a lovely and ethereal atmosphere.

The next piece almost sounds like it could be free improv by people who are good at it. "Sotteranei" is a wild electronica synth freak-out.

Then there's more mysterious atmosphere, very well done, in the short and effective cue, "Mostri E Facchia", which ends with the wedding march.

And after that it's jazz time with the gently swinging "La Festa", a feature for the clarinet with backing strings.

"Luna Interviene" drops the backbeat in again for a really solid, unhurried, strong, driving, synth-rock instrumental number.

More traditional classic horror movie underscore is the target for "Combattimento Finale". Zambrini's arrangements are impressive, getting a very full sound from a relatively small orchestra.

And then there's the "Titoli Di Coda", which sounds triumphant and satisfied, as the main characters in the movie probably were as well.

2021 October 08 • Friday

Slow Horses is the first book in Mick Herron's Slough House espionage series.

The first novel in a series often is a bit exploratory and, well, maybe you'd say unsure in some ways, and Slow Horses did give me this impression at times but after reading the Slough House short story that's included as a bonus in this tenth anniverary edition, I'm wondering if this is just Herron's style.

Herron first came to my attention in the TLS, where the most recent Slough House novel and the series in general got a rave review. Herron himself has contributed some articles that impressed me quite a bit, both in their content and with the actual writing.

For fiction he has a very different voice, though, very wordy and enthusiastic, at times too much so for me. He also uses semicolons more than any other writer I know of, to the extent that I couldn't help noticing the frequency of their appearances.

But what's the deal? It's a great idea for a series. Slough House is where loser spies are sent just to be kept out of the way. The best result is that they'll become so bored and discouraged by the tedious and pointless busywork dumped on them in their crappy office building in a crappy neighborhood that they'll just quit and then British Intelligence won't have to worry about them anymore.

Everyone there has committed some kind of colossal error or transgression, whether it's some kind of vice, carelessness or bad luck. Their boss is a large, malodorous, deeply unpleasant man named Jackson Lamb, who appears to be more or less satisfied with reigning in hell instead of serving in heaven.

This first book gets off to a slow start, perhaps because Herron wants to introduce the reader to about a dozen different characters and does so simply by telling us about them. It's a considerable information dump and while there are some stirrings of the actual story during this time, I would have found it easier going if we could have learned about these people while they were in action in ways that directly connected to the story.

Once the plot itself really gets under way, however, the pace of the book hits a nice stride, the reader knows who everybody is, and there are so many twists and bits of authorial misdirection that you'll probably be able to see them coming even if you don't know exactly which direction the twist will go.

What is the plot? Well, there's very little to say that won't ruin one or another surprise. The main thing is the abduction of a young man by terrorists who plan to chop off his head and show the whole thing online. The slow horses get onto it and see in it a chance for redemption. At first, anyway.

The chief appeal of the series must lie in the character of Lamb and his anti-everythingness. He certainly is fun although I'm now tagging as cliche the "fat man who can move with incredible stealth and speed". This one goes back to at least the 1940s. And it's hardly a surprise that Lamb turns out to be incredibly capable at all aspects of tradecraft. Nonetheless, if the character has several familiar qualities it's partly because these qualities are so often enjoyable.

The best part of this edition is Herron's charming preface about how he started to write and develop the series. The short story is okay, giving a glimpse into Lamb's Cold War past.

It's the first in a series and it definitely has potential, even though the style is a little breathlessly wordy, teetering on the brink of being overwritten, and oddly punctuated for my taste. I'll try the second one at some point.

The first line is "This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses".

2021 October 06 • Wednesday

Here's another Tempo magazine, again from the venerable Bookstore Restaurant in Cape Cod. This one has a May 1958 cover date.

Of course my primary interests were in the censored movies and hot rod articles but there were some other interesting items as well.

For instance, even though it had been a few years since the death of James Dean, the back cover challenges us with the question, "After James Dean, What?".

It's not meant to be rhetorical and the answer was apparently Rock Hudson. While he did end up a big star he wasn't a James Dean type.

Perhaps the most startling thing in here is this proto-punk hairstyle that's apparently a reaction to Sputnik.

The 1950s were really weird.

What about the censored movies that American soldiers overseas are flocking to? Well, not much. The examples given are And God Created Woman, Baby Doll, Smiles of a Summer Night and Passionate Summer.

Passionate Summer is the only one not known to me but the others, well, their only crime seems to be that sex is a subject in the movie. It's talked about and strongly implied but never shown, It might turn out not to have occurred at all.

In Baby Doll, for example, banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency but also a freakin' Tennessee Williams movie, the only original screenplay he ever wrote, Eli Wallach felt that his character in the movie did not actually have sex with the title character. That wasn't the impression I had from watching it but of course there's no actual evidence to support either view.

Smiles of a Summer Night is a freakin' Ingmar Bergman movie. That probably tells you all you need to know about how much of a turn-on it is.

And God Created Woman does actually star Brigitte Bardot so maybe there's something there. But I saw this movie back in the '90s at the French Insitute in Manhattan and while it might have caused some shortness of breath in the 1950s, I think it would be pretty tame in comparison to what soldiers stationed overseas would be likely to experience in their actual lives.

One soldier is quoted as saying, when asked about Baby Doll, that "It wasn't as sexy as they said it would be". Another one said he didn't like it but found it to be dull, not dirty.

And a censor is also quoted as asking, presumably rhetorically, "How much morality must we give up for the sake of morale?" One suspects that the censor is so pleased with morality/morale there that it didn't occur to him that if the two are in such heated conflict then morality might need a new inspection sticker.

But enough about that. There were also hot rods, remember?

Good to know about these four types!

2021 October 04 • Monday

Halloween is coming soon! We'll start getting in the mood with the 694th Soundtrack of the Week, the music from Le Frisson des Vampires, performed by rock band Acanthus.

It's on blood red vinyl!

The record kicks off with "Funérailles des Vampires", a great instrumental rock number that starts with some tolling bells and then gets into a jangle-doom groove.

Then there's the main title theme, a strange piece with a repeating sinuous figure and some various feels, blues, rock, whatever.

Next is "La Chateau", kind of a loungey shake number with flute joining the lead guitar part.

Things get into a heavier, more hard rock mood for the short "Wedding Party (Angoisse Temporelle)", one of several short cues in rapid succession. It's followed by "Ominous Tower" and "Occupied Clock" (bells and creaking door) and then by "'Who Are You?'", a snippet of dialogue from the movie.

Then the band gets into spacy, almost Grateful Dead-like territory with "Isolde" but it unexpectedly goes in a different direction, changing both energy and form into a more recognizable rock song sort of thing.

"Curious Antoine" has the band playing a suspenseful figure over and over. At one point it's interrupted by one of the characters from the movie screaming.

Gently jangling guitar notes and airy flute make a beautiful environment for "Sleeping Beauty (Samba Des Vampires)".

Then another bit of dialogue from the movie: "'I Thought I Had a Hallucination'". You can hear the band playing underneath the actor talking about seeing a human sacrifice.

Then there's "Violent Library", which starts with an insistent drum tattoo to which is added some cool guitar noises, enhanced by what sounds like tape echo.

"Night Excursion" is a mysterious sounding piece with propulsive strumming and sporadic guitar freakouts, which continues into "The Memory of Eternal Darkness" before switching to the wails and screams of "Isolde Rising".

Flip the record and the B side starts with "'Drunk with Carnage'", more dialogue from the movie with some guitar and flute playing uner it.

Then "Isabelle's Demise", which features organ as an effective accompaniment to solemnly pounded drums and electric guitar statements.

The groove and chord changes for "Doux-Reveil" are familiar from other psych rock songs but instead of a singer there's some flute playing, occasionally with intentional overblowing, as well as electric guitar soloing.

"Isa's Ceremony" is an impressive blend of drumming with electric guitar tape delay noise improv as well as some unenhanced lines and chords.

A pastoral folksy sort of sound from guitar and flute make up the short "Love-Blood", which is followed by some dialogue from the movie in "Flightless Bird".

A very effective mood of tension and suspense is created by the band in "La Cité Rouge", a monomaniacal presentation of a few repeated interesting musical phrases. It segues into a more straightforward chord-heavy instrumental track "Blood Cups".

Then there are some single lines and monster riffs for "Isa's Ceremony 2 / Runaway Train", which also features some, uh, suggestive sounds from the movie. It really takes off at the end.

Then we're back in a somewhat sunnier and definitely strummier zone with "Free from the Curse", which actually does sound like a track in celebration of something. But Acantus's sound is definitely different from most bands I've heard and there's always something kind of eerie and unsettling about each track.

"The Shiver of the Vampires" starts out with what sounds like a train and also has more, uh, suggestive sounds from the movie before getting into its acid rock freak-out with the electric guitarist really going for it.

Finally we wrap things up with "Envol Vers la Folle", a satisfyingly layered track with engaging descending lines from the guitar, as well as the organ and even a chorus of wordless vocals thickening out the sound. Lots of minor keys and a haunting quality throughout.

2021 October 01 • Friday

Ah, it's Schocktober again! Time to get in the spirit with Mort Garson's incredible electronic music album Black Mass Lucifer, on pink vinyl!

We first encountered Garson via his extraordinary Plantasia record.

Black Mass Lucifer is a very different project but absolutely as good, maybe even better.

The tunes all have titles like "Incubus", "Exorcism", "Evil Eye" and so forth, and the liner notes are by an expert in folklore and mythology who gives background on what these terms mean without commenting on the music.

The music is amazing, though. "Ride of Aido (Voodoo)" does in fact conjure up distinct impressions of voodoo drums while also melodically suggesting "Third Stone from the Sun".

"Incubus" starts out kind of slow and dreamy but slams into a sort of electronic jazz fusion masterpiece that somehow recalls the Jim Hall tune "Careful" while "Black Mass" manages to channel both Bach and Black Sabbath.

Other parts might remind you of Vangelis as well as 1980s synth horror and 1950s sci-fi theremin movie scores. Much of it is just delightfully strange.

Everything is done with electronic instruments and considering that this was first released in 1971, it's staggeringly impressive.

Even better, it's just a fantastic listening experience!