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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

A Holiday to Matheran

As we left our holiday cottage, to return home in the city, my wife said, "Look over your shoulder before you leave so that we come back again." Read about our recent trip to Matheran, the forest on the head, and the smallest hill station in India, at B+ve.

June 30, 2012

The horror of horror films

Which horror films scared you the most? I was fourteen when The Exorcist chilled me to the bone. I saw the movie at an aunt’s place one late night. It was raining heavily and I had to return home through a dark and narrow alley running through a high-walled home for the aged and a deserted home for the mentally challenged. I made it home safely but swore never to watch a horror film again. It’s now more than three decades, the possessed face of Regan is still fresh in my memory.


Back then, morbid curiosity got the better of me. A couple of days after I saw Regan wrestle Father Karras on the floor and to his death, I watched Friday the 13th and The Omen series over two days, both in the dead of night – when the sands of time trickle slowly through the hourglass of horror.

I have a vague recollection of the many-parts Friday the 13th in which a mysterious entity murders young campers. It was a well-made thriller. 

The Omen was scarier because there was no hideous face to Damien, the antichrist, unlike in The Exorcist. I remember a few scenes from The Omen, most especially the end when a young Damien, having destroyed his family, stands at the top of the stairs of a building, looks in the distance (or at his chauffeur down below) and smiles. At least I think that’s how it went. Damien Thorn was a cute kid who won many hearts; you couldn't believe he was also the devil incarnate.

Incidentally, The Omen was directed by Richard Donner who also gave us the Superman and Lethal Weapon series – a trilogy of supernatural, superhero and super-crime films.

These horror flicks were soon followed by The Entity whose ultimate scary proposition lay in its stalking music, like Jaws. Shut off the sound and you might as well be watching Mel Brooks tickling you to death. Two scenes were spooky – when the invisible entity slaps Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) in front of her dressing table, throws her on the bed and molests her, and when the front door slams in the end, indicating the demon has left for good. Has it really?

Yet another film that freaked me out was An American Werewolf in London, the terrifying metamorphosis of a young tourist from man to beast and beast to man. I saw parts of this cult film a few weeks ago but, thankfully, it didn’t hold.

In the mid-1980s, I saw quite a few horror films that bordered on the ridiculous, like Evil Dead that had a tree raping a woman or something like that, and A Nightmare on Elm Street that didn’t make much sense either; though, it had twenty-one year old Johnny Depp making his dream debut in a nightmare of a film.

Around this time I also saw The Fly on VCR. The 1958 original gave me the creeps, particularly the end scene where the wife of the half man-half fly scientist is forced to destroy it. I think the scientist, played by Vincent Price if I’m not mistaken, pleads with his wife to kill him after she recovers from the initial shock of seeing her husband’s face appended to the body of a fly, perched on a plant in their garden. I’m writing this straight from memory and I hope it’s the way I remember it. 

So, these are some of the horror films that scared the pants off me. How about you?

June 28, 2012

BOOKS

Five forgotten books I want to read...

...ought to be a fairly decent post for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme normally hosted by Patti Abbott at her blog Pattinase and hosted by the very considerate Todd Mason this week. Don’t forget to read about the many forgotten books over at his blog Sweet Freedom.

I have been preoccupied with urgent personal work, hence I don't have the time for a regular book review. Since I don't want to miss FFB entirely, I have put together a few covers of books written by some of my favourite authors, books I have been on the lookout for in new and secondhand bookstores in Bombay, in vain so far. Maybe, I haven’t looked in the right places. Hopefully, I’ll have better luck online.

How many of these vintage books have you read?
 I have read just one.


P.G. Wodehouse, of whom Evelyn Waugh once said “He has made a world for us to live and delight in,” published Love Among the Chickens in June 1906. He serialised it in Circle magazine, New York, during 1908 and 1909 before launching the US edition of the book in May 1909. The narrator of the novel is Jeremy Garnet, a writer and old friend of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a recurring character in Wodehouse’s stories. Garnet regales us with his adventures on Ukridge’s chicken farm in Dorset, England. 


Lloyd C. Douglas, a minister and author, built a great career out of writing about religious and historical fiction. His most famous work is The Robe (1942) in which a Roman tribune recounts his personal and emotional experience of the Crucifixion and its aftermath. Published in 1929, Magnificent Obsession is the story of two men who dedicate their lives to helping people. Both these novels were made into blockbusters. 


Frank G. Slaughter, American author and physician, was one of the finest writers of the last century. The Thorn of Arimathea remains my favourite book by Slaughter who, I suspect, was influenced by the work of Lloyd C. Douglas. I still have to read many of Slaughter’s novels including Fort Everglades (1951) which tells the story of a bloody struggle between a White and a Red in the wild swamplands of Florida in 1840. 


John Steinbeck’s first novel, published in 1929, is about legendary pirate Henry Morgan’s obsession with a beautiful woman and the conquest of Panama — the Cup of Gold. The American writer’s only historical novel is described as “a lush, lyrical fantasy.” 


A.J. Cronin, the Scottish physician and author, is renowned for The Citadel and Hatter’s Castle though he wrote several memorable books including The Keys of the Kingdom, The Green Years and The Spanish Gardener, the last reviewed here. My own favourite has always been Beyond This Place (1953), a book I read in college. It’s about a young man who sets out to prove his father innocent of a murder conviction. You will see little shades of this story in John Grisham’s The Chamber. Strangely, I never came across the novel after I read it the first time.

Now if I could mention one more forgotten author here, it would be Nevil Shute, the British-Australian author and aeronautical engineer, who has written sagas about wars and Australia, many in the backdrop of aviation. I reviewed Shute's Beyond the Black Stump here.

June 27, 2012

John Fernie on a Perry Mason paperback

I was reading The Case of the Gilded Lily by Erle Stanley Gardner in a suburban train, on my way to work this morning, when I casually looked at the cover, as I had done many times before, and wondered who might have painted it. I turned to the back cover and found the words "Cover Painting: John Fernie" in small print, alongside a black-and-white photograph of Raymond Burr advertising "Another case for PERRY MASON, on CBS-TV, Saturday nights."

My copy of the Perry Mason paperback (left) claims to be 
a Genuine Cardinal Edition, June 1959. I wonder if John Fernie illustrated other Perry Mason covers. I'm sure he did as most of the ESG paperbacks have similar covers.

I looked up John Fernie (below) on the internet and found that he was an illustrator and artist from Dundee, Scotland, who was commissioned to do illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan, among others, as well as paintings for Broadway the­atre posters Bye-Bye Birdie, Baker Street and the Ice Capades.


The John Fernie website says that his paintings are in collec­tions in Canada, England, Italy, Spain and throughout America.

Fernie (1919-2001) was, no doubt, a very gifted artist who brought his paintings to life with vibrant colours. Check out some of his paintings here.


June 26, 2012

FILM REVIEW

Operation: Daybreak (1975)

This review of Operation: Daybreak is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating reviews over there.


On June 22, Yvette Banek wrote a stirring piece on the award-winning film Brokeback Mountain at her blog In So Many Words… (click on the link to read it). In my brief appreciation of her article, I mentioned that the real story lay in the tragic end. This got me thinking about other films where two men are caught in a similarly poignant and hopeless situation towards the end, though, under vastly different circumstances.

Two films came instantly to my mind — the daring exploits of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and the courageous acts of Sergeant Jan Kubis (Timothy Bottoms) and Sergeant Jozef Gabcík (Anthony Andrews) in Operation: Daybreak (1975).

Both films end in tragedies but not before entertaining the viewers sufficiently through the better part of their nearly two-hour length. The final scenes in the two films are stamped on our minds — Cassidy and the Kid running out of the house with their guns blazing and Kubis and Gabcík turning their guns on each other in a suicidal embrace.

Of the two films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is decidedly more glamourous, as is the case with nearly everything about the Wild West, at least in books and films. Newman and Redford only add to the glamour quotient.

There is seldom an aura to war films which are entertaining in their own way, albeit in the shadow of the grim and frightening realities of war and conflict and their bloody aftermath.

The real SS General Heydrich
Operation: Daybreak is the kind of war film you’ll marvel at, because of the way it is made — a true story in the chilling backdrop of the Nazi regime and World War II. Hitler has occupied Czechoslovakia and a squad of recklessly brave resistance fighters is trained by British Special Operations Forces and airdropped into Prague to eliminate SS General Reinhard Heydrich (Anton Diffring), the very evil Reich Protector — known to the world as The Hangman and The Butcher of Prague. 

In the film, shot on location in Prague, Kubis (Bottoms) and Gabcík (Andrews) ambush Heydrich but fail to kill him the first time. The underground fighters, however, regroup and succeed in their second attempt though not without hiccoughs. If my memory serves me correctly (I saw this film only once, in early 1980), the duo miss their target and a grenade tossed by Kubis in a last-ditch effort falls short of Heydrich but the resultant explosion injures him grievously and he dies a few days later.

This is exactly what happened to Reinhard Heydrich in real life: he was killed in a secret Allied mission known as Operation Anthropoid.


For me, Operation: Daybreak is not about the plot to kill the Nazi maniac or the brutal reprisals that followed the deed but the courage of two young men who, holed up in the underground loft of a building, decide to kill each other rather than fall to a hail of bullets from hundreds of Jerries advancing upon their position. 


When the German soldiers start flooding the basement with water, in a final attempt to flush out the Czech fighters, Sergeants Kubis and Gabcík realise they are doomed. Standing in neck-deep water, they take out their revolvers, point them at each other’s head and fire, point blank. The final scene has stayed with me since the first and only time I saw it. I don’t remember Anthony Andrews much but I do remember the look on Timothy Bottoms’ face as he pulls the trigger in that emotionally charged scene.

Now thirty years is a very long time and it’s possible I've been sketchy with the facts, so I invite readers to correct me and set them right.


Operation: Daybreak, one of the great war movies to be made, is directed by Lewis Gilbert known for his James Bond flicks You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, and is based on the book Seven Men at Daybreak by English author Alan Burgess. Americans watched the film as The Price of Freedom


Reinhard Heydrich Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

June 25, 2012

Short Story: Carroll John Daly

The Giant Has Fleas

It was a detective's stubbornness that made big Joe Fenton, racketeer, and it was a detective's stubbornness that broke him.

The world's first hardboiled detective was, apparently, created by Carroll John Daly (1889-1958) and not Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) as lot of people think. I thought so too, but that is because Daly has largely remained in my peripheral vision unlike Hammett whose novels I have read in the distant past. 

Daly invented Race Williams a few months before Hammett produced The Contintenal Op. Both the hardboiled private detectives made their debut in Black Mask magazine in 1923, Race Williams in June and The Continental Op in October of that year. Their names sound like the names of superheroes.

Daly brought his most famous detective to life in the imaginatively titled Knights of the Open Palm. While searching for this short story online I stumbled upon another short story by him, The Giant Has Fleas, published in Detective Story Magazine in February 1947. I read the 15-page story partly because of the title and partly because I wanted to get acquainted with Daly's work anyway.

In this story the American author introduces us to Eddie Blair, a cool-headed detective whose obsession with prosecuting gangster Joseph R. Fenton, a childhood acquaintance, for a woman's murder nearly costs him the sergeant's post and his reputation.

Blair is, however, unconcerned about the rank or his name as he pursues big man Fenton with single-minded focus, so much so that Inspector O'Leary, his mentor and superior, reminds him of his other cases, their trails gone cold. Not for long, though, as Blair quietly produces evidence in an envelope. That's how he works.

Leary is weary of going after Fenton, a powerful man, whose probable arrest, conviction and trial would "shake the very foundations of the city government...shake the confidence of the citizens." The inspector is indirectly asking Blair to lay off Fenton because even if he did have clinching evidence against the gangster, it would be to risky to bring it out into the open.


But, "Joe Fenton" — he laid emphasis on the "Joe," noticing the inspector's use of the "Joseph" — "was and is the greatest single menace to law and order and decent government in the city today."

Unrelenting in his pursuit of Fenton, the detective uses the fleas on the giant's back to get to him — the boys who either knew Fenton or were friends with the racketeer.

As Blair tells Leary, "I'm sort of messed up on Big Joe Fenton. Now I'm having a little fling. I like to call it an investment in..."

"In what?" asked the inspector.

"Fleas," said Eddie, and went out of the room whistling.


He invests in one of Big Joe's fleas called Gunner Duncan, a killer, whose mind he poisons against the gangster...

Joseph R. Fenton is soon found dead. That's how Eddie Blair likes it. Get the fleas to go after the giants and then go after the fleas.


"Fascinating thing, fleas. Even giants have them."

The Giant Has Fleas is a clean tale and moves at a fairly brisk pace. The narrative is compact with little room for details or descriptions, of characters and settings. A straitjacketed story but quite readable.

June 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

The Summer Man (1967) by Jory Sherman

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Hop over and check out the fine mix of reviews by other book bloggers.

The women of Cambrian Grove were restless and bored with small-town men... Johnny was an exciting stranger, a folk singer who played his guitar with sensuous vitality. 

Renowned author Jory Sherman writes like a poet, which isn’t surprising considering he started his writing career as a poet. There is music in his prose — the lines have a certain rhythmic quality to them, like the notes of a musical score, as evident from his narrative style in The Summer Man.

Sherman wrote The Summer Man in 1967 (Challenge Books) and, I presume, it is one of his earliest works in general fiction before he went on to make a name as a prolific award-winning Western author. So far this is the only book of his I have read and if his writing style and storytelling is anything like it is in The Summer Man, I am going to read almost everything he has written.

The Summer Man is the story of wandering folk singer Johnny O’Neil who is as skilled with women in bed as he is playing the guitar. His nomadic existence takes him from one place to another and into the waiting arms of one lonely housewife to another. He fills a vacuum their husbands can’t or won’t. However, his restless nature does not permit him to stay very long in one place lest he gets used to the idea. The women, sexy as they come, are loath to see him go. But Johnny moves on because he is basically a loner and loves his freedom more than anything else.

Until one day, he arrives in Cambrian Grove, to the home of his best friend, Jim, an insecure alcoholic badly in need of rehab, and his sister Marty, a divorcee seeking love and comfort again. And then he meets Marty’s friend and neighbour, the beautiful and sensuous Lola, and life for the wanderer is never the same again. The explosive chemistry between the folk singer and the forlorn housewife is what this story is about.


"Lovely and lost, she struck a poignant minor key and touched Johnny in a new, disturbing way." 

Prolific author Jory Sherman. Photo: www.jorysherman.com

Sherman’s description of the lovemaking between Johnny and Lola is so poetic that you actually think you are reading one. The lure of Lola is so powerful that Johnny sheds his inhibitions and tells her that he loves her, a sentiment she reciprocates without hesitation. But then, Lola has a husband who doesn’t behave like one and Johnny has a disposition he can’t seem to get rid of.

"Lola offered more than a tender night's pleasure. Johnny knew he should move on, that it could only end sadly. Still he lingered."


I liked The Summer Man for the way it is written and not so much for the story. Although the story is narrated in the third person, in a mild sort of way, Johnny talks about his own itinerant life and sexual dalliances in the first person, but without being too explicit. For an initiation into Jory Sherman’s writing, the book made for interesting reading. I am looking forward to reading his Western fiction.

June 20, 2012

JUKE BOX

Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas

Everybody was kung fu fighting
Those cats were fast as lightning
In fact it was a little bit frightning
But they fought with expert timing


There isn't a single 1970s kid in India who didn't swing or lip sync to the popular disco song Kung Fu Fighting written and sung by the Jamaican-born, UK-based singer Carl Douglas and produced by the Indian-born, British composer and singer Biddu Appaiah. The 1974 song, with its farcical lyrics, became a hit single and sold eleven million records at the time. It also made disco music more popular than ever. In this video you have Douglas and Biddu (extreme left) singing and swaying to the martial arts number.



June 19, 2012

FILM REVIEW

Mind Your Language (1977)

This week the British sitcom Mind Your Language is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other interesting reviews over there.

The family often sits down to watch Mind Your Language, the popular and entertaining British sitcom of the late seventies. My generation first got to see it on the state-run Doordarshan channel in the early eighties. It was a hit in India and in most parts of Asia. In those days, and this was long before cable TV, Doordarshan (which loosely means ‘Far Sight’ in Hindi) used to telecast only British serials like To the Manor Born, Some Mothers Do 'ave 'em, Sorry!, Are You Being Served? and 'Allo 'Allo! Some of these sitcoms are now back and they are as funny as they were back then. Yes Minister came later.

The only American serial that ran around the time was Lucy. She was fun too, up to a point, and as long as Mr. Mooney was around. 


I remember we were contented with the few sitcoms we watched in our teens. Now we get more American and British serials, 24x7, and yet we surf the channels like there was nothing going on. A case of too much, too little.

Mind Your Language, made by LWT (London Weekend Television) and directed by British director-producer Stuart Allen, is about an affable and gentlemanly English teacher Jeremy Brown (Barry Evans) who teaches English as a foreign language to a heterogeneous bunch of students from all parts of the world.
 

Mr. Brown and his class.

The students are all grown-ups — with families, love lives, careers, unemployment, and immigration issues — who attend Mr. Brown's class with unfailing regularity even if it leaves the "professori" at his wits end by the end of the class. It doesn't help much that the students, especially Danielle (Françoise Pascal) from France, are fond of their teacher and go out of their way to put him at ease even if the final outcome is exactly the opposite of what they had intended. They mean well and Mr. Brown knows it. After all, he did take up the challenging job in spite of knowing that the students had driven his predecessor insane. They didn't mean to do that either — or did they?

The students try and speak English but they have absolutely no feel for the language in terms of diction, pronunciation, accent, phonetics, spellings, figures of speech…they communicate all the same, with each other and with Mr. Brown who has a befuddled expression on his face most of the time.
 

Mr. Brown: What was that again?
 
When the students answer Mr. Brown’s questions, the results are often hilarious. For instance, when he tells Maximillian (Kevork Malikyan) that the collective name for a group of cows is a herd of cows, the Greek student says in all seriousness, “Of course, I heard of cows!”

His best friend Giovanni (George Camiller) often plays class monitor in Mr. Brown’s absence. In one scene, when Mr. Brown returns, the lanky Italian tells his teacher, “Professori, I don’t know how you put up with these people everyday!”

Mind Your Language is replete with such humour, as the foreign students speak in their own distinct voices, reflective of the country they come from. This leaves Mr. Brown and Ms. Dolores Courtney (Zara Nutley), the very propah and formidable school principal, exasperated — and at a loss for words.

While the sitcom is a family entertainer, it has been considered offensive for political incorrectness, pitting one nationality against another, and racial overtone. 

Mr. Brown with Ali Nadeem and Jamila Ranjha.

For example, the sari-clad Jamila Ranjha (Jamila Massey) is a housewife from India while Ranjeet Singh, a Sikh portrayed by Albert Moses, is from Punjab, which, in spite of being a part of India, is shown as a separate country.

The serial also shows frequent rivalry between some of the students — strangely, Ranjeet Singh of Punjab against Ali Nadeem (Dino Shafeek) of Pakistan (reflecting the bitter relations between India and Pakistan); a Chairman Mao-obsessed Chung Su-Lee (Pik-Sen Lim) of China against Taro Nagazumi (Robert Lee) of Japan (a throwback to World War II rivalry); and Maximillian of Greece against Giovanni of Italy (probably in allusion to the Greco-Italian conflict during WWII).

On the racial slant to the series, Ranjeet Singh is often portrayed as being subservient — every time he makes a mistake he joins his hands, bows, and says “A thousand apologies” to Mr. Brown or Ms. Courtney.

For some reason, Ali Nadeem, the most comic of the lot, mouths English catchphrases like “Oh blimey!”, “Jolly good,” and “Yes please.” He’s at his innocent best when he says "Squeeze me please!" for “Excuse me please!”

None of this, however, takes away the good humour in Mind Your Language. Junk your prejudices and you’ll have an enjoyable time watching the serial. I suggest you watch the episodes back to back, with the entire family on a weekend. You can’t watch a comedy all by yourself — you'll never laugh alone. 


History in a vintage ad


I don’t remember posting vintage advertisements on this blog before. I usually hop over to noted author Bill Crider’s blog Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine for a regular dose of vintage ads that tell their own story.

There are always exceptions to the rule, though, and I am making an exception with the above advertisement I came across in Weird Tales: Isle of the Dead, Vol.28 No.31, 1936. 

In this ad titled Let Me Tell You (finger-wagging) astrologer Pundit Tabore guarantees a solution to most of life’s problems that include relief from your enemies. I couldn’t think of putting it any other way.

The ad intrigued me for two reasons: one, it’s a nondescript ad placed by an Indian in an American pulp magazine, and two, the address at the bottom of the ad, Upper Forjett Street. I suppose astral readings and fantasy and horror have something in common.

Now Forjett Street, located in the upmarket neighbourhood of south Bombay (not very far from where I work), and Forjett Hill on which the road sits, is named after Charles Forjett who was commissioner of police in British India from 1856 to 1864. According to a report in The Times of India, Forjett was a genial and excellent officer who wore native clothes, spoke the local languages fluently, and cracked down on criminal rings. He was also credited with creating the first formal police structure for Bombay (now Mumbai).


There is nothing amiss about the advertisement itself for Pundit Tabore’s “descendants” are thriving in India even today, conning the gullible and the illiterate.

June 18, 2012

Short Story: Charlotte Bronte

Napoleon and the Spectre

Charlotte Brontë, the celebrated English novelist and poet, has written a ghost story — yes, you read that correctly — and a very witty one too. 

In Napoleon and the Spectre, the Emperor of France is about to fall asleep when he hears a rustling sound near his bed. Unnerved, Napoleon drinks a glass of lemonade to quench his thirst and, I suspect, to quell his fear. Soon he hears a "deep groan" coming from the closet in his apartment (I thought he lived in a palace). 

"Who's there?" cried the Emperor, seizing his pistols. "Speak, or I'll blow your brains out." (Does that sound like Charlotte Bronte?)

This threat produced no other effect than a short, sharp laugh, and a dead silence followed.

Napoleon jumps off the couch and, with sword in hand, steps toward the closet only to discover that the rustling sound was made by his cloak which had fallen from the peg. Then, just as he is about to drop off to sleep, he perceives shadows which he attributes to lit candles.

"Pooh!" exclaimed Napoleon, "it was but an ocular delusion."

"Was it?" whispered a hollow voice, in deep mysterious tones, close to his ear.


The emperor loses his sleep and his senses when he suddenly comes face to face with the apparition that has a powerful hold on him. Napoleon follows the spectre, hideous in appearance, through the streets of Paris and to a lofty house on the banks of the Seine.

He enters the house and finds himself standing before Marie Louise, the Empress of France. Napoleon is flummoxed.


"What! Are you in this infernal place, too?" said he. "What has brought you here?"

"Will your Majesty permit me to ask the same question of yourself?" said the Empress, smiling.

Apparently, the emperor, wearing his night dress, has sleepwalked right into his wife's drawing room where her guests are having a ball. Napoleon suffers a fit of catalepsy and falls to the ground.

My first thought upon reading this short story was: did Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre, really write this haunting tale? Looks like she did. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks tells us that Napoleon and the Spectre is from the manuscript of The Green Dwarf dated July 10, 1833-September 2, 1833. It was republished in The Twelve Adventurers and Other Stories in 1925.

The story is brilliantly well written, both prose and substance evoking instant laughter as you read through it and imagine the look on Napoleon's face, the poor devil. Though, frankly, I can't imagine what made the eldest of the Bronte sisters poke fun at the French emperor. She must have had good reason.

But, did Charlotte Bronte really write this story? Here's the link. What do you think?



Dr. Hale's rules for writing 

By William Henry Hills Robert Luce, Editor, The Writer, Volume VI, April 1892, a monthly magazine to interest and help all literary workers.

It is hard to believe that Dr. Edward Everett Hale (Edward Everett Hale [1822–1909], American author, historian and Unitarian clergyman) will be seventy years old April 3, but it will not do to contradict the birth record and the arithmetic, in spite of all his unfailing energy and youthful activity in many different undertakings. Dr. Hale is one of the men who will be always young, and it may be in consequence of this that he has written so many things that will never lose their freshness. One of the best of them is the chapter in "How to Do It" on "How to Write," which is full of crisp and practical suggestions. Dr. Hale's rules for writing are evidently those which have always governed his own literary work; and while others may not be able to follow them with equal success, they are worth remembering by every writer. The rules are:

"First, Know what you want to say; second, Say it; third, Use your own language; fourth, Leave out all the fine passages; fifth, A short word is better than a long one; sixth, The fewer words, other things being equal, the better; finally, Cut it to pieces. Any writer who will make these rules his guide in daily work will find in them an important help to literary success."

Courtesy: Project Gutenberg EBook

June 16, 2012

DRABBLE DAY CHALLENGE

On June 2, Patti Abbott threw a Drabble challenge over at her blog Pattinase. "A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words," she tells us. June 16 is the day of submission of entries, loosely based on any one of the three snapshots provided by her here. This is my drabble based on the picture of the gent who, I presume, is on a treasure hunt. I hope it totals up to a hundred words. 

While we are drabble rousing, don't forget to check out Rob Kitchin's inventive Drabbles at his blog The View from the Blue House.







The deadly treasure hunt 

Draco Buzz looked at the map and thought, “Yup, I’m close to the treasure. I can almost smell it.”

He had left his glasses near the kitchen sink at home. He peered at the X’s and O’s on the map through his binoculars.

He walked a little ahead, stumbled over a jutting rock, and fell head first into a clump of brush. As he raised himself, painfully, he heard the jingle of coins. He looked down under his belly and cried in jubilation, “Yay! I found it!!”

Then he saw the feet sticking out of the ground, the toes missing.


And this one below is on me…

The corpse in the O.T.

Inspector Harindranath Hattangadi, CID, Bombay Police, got his first homicide case on his thirtieth birthday. He entered the O.T., saw the bloody mutilated body and vomited on the surgeon.

"I...I...I'm so sorry," he spluttered. I didn't mean to do that."

"Never seen a dead body before, eh."

Harindranath thought of his neighbour’s dead cat.

“Who found the body?” he peered at the corpse. The face was missing.

“I did.”

“When?”

“An hour ago.”

“Any idea who did it.”

“Yes.”

Something in the doctor’s voice made Harindranath turn around. The surgeon was moving towards him, a bloodied scalpel in his hand.

June 15, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

The Haunted Hour: An Anthology
by Margaret Widdemer (1920)


This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Hop over and check out the eclectic mix of reviews by other bloggers. It will be worth your while.

While I read poetry whenever I am in the mood for it, I have never read ghostly poetry, at least not in an anthology of poems and verses by more than sixty poets.

The Haunted Hour: An Anthology edited by Margaret Widdemer, the American poet and novelist (1884–1978), is a compilation of some very imaginative ghost-poems that are divided into eleven categories — The Nicht Atween the Sancts an' Souls, All the Little Sighing Souls, Shadowy Heroes, Rank on Rank of Ghostly Soldiers, Sea Ghosts, Cheerful Spirits, Haunted Places, You Know the Old, While I Know the New, My Love That Was So True, 
Shapes of Doom, and Legends and Ballads of the Dead.

Several names in the anthology are familiar to me. These include Rudyard Kipling, H.W. Longfellow, Walter by De La Mare, Christina Rossetti, Sir Edwin Arnold, Katharine Tynan, William Butler Yeats, and Sir Walter Scott.

Bret Harte, whom I know to be a writer and not a poet (my ignorance), chips in with Newport Romance, a rather longish but quite an enjoyable poem.

Then there are six poems by Theodosia Garrison, American poet and author, whose poem The Neighbours I liked very much. It goes...
 

At first cock-crow
The ghosts must go
Back to their quiet graves below.

I have read Garrison's poetry before but not her prose. More than anything else, I remember Garrison for her very quotable quote — "The hardest habit of all to break is the terrible habit of happiness." Never break that habit.

A few more poets ring a distant bell and I might have read their poems in passing. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading their long and short verses, at least the ones I could comprehend. It’s not always easy to understand poetry.

Coming back to Margaret Widdemer, there isn't a lot about her on the internet. According to Wikipedia, in 1919, she won the Columbia University Prize for Poetry (now the Pulitzer Prize) for her collection The Old Road to Paradise (1918), a prize she shared with Carl Sandburg, fellow writer, editor and poet, for his collection of poems titled Corn Huskers.

Widdemer established her credentials as a poet with her first poem The Factories (1917) that looked at the sensitive issue of child labour. In her memoir Golden Years I Had (1964), she recounts her friendships with Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her essay Message and Middlebrow, published in Review of Literature in 1933, apparently popularised the term "middlebrow" which means "Someone who is neither a highbrow nor a lowbrow."

Margaret Widdemer, who lived until 94, was a prolific writer as is evident from her forty novels that included The Rose-Garden Husband and Why Not?, nine poetry collections, nine children's fiction, two books on writing titled Do You Want to Write? and Basic Principles of Fiction Writing, and three memoirs, namely Golden Friends I Had, Summers at the Colony, and Jessie Rittenhouse: A Centenary Memoir-Anthology.

Her first two novels, The Rose-Garden Husband (1915) and Why Not? (1916), were made into films — the 1917-film A Wife on Trial and the 1918-film A Dream Lady, respectively. 

I am no critic of poetry. I only enjoy reading poems. The purpose of writing about this (forgotten) book is to bring it to the reader's notice. I will, therefore, leave you with Margaret Widdemer’s brief preface to The Haunted Hour: An Anthology. It reads as follows... 

“This does not attempt to be an inclusive anthology. The ghostly poetry of the late war alone would have made a book as large as this; and an inclusive scheme would have ended as a six-volume Encyclopedia of Ghostly Verse. I hope that this may be called for some day. The present book has been held to the conventional limits of the type of small anthology which may be read without weariness (I hope) by the exclusion not only of many long and dreary ghost-poems, but many others which it was very hard to leave out.

"I have not considered as ghost-poems anything but poems which related to the return of spirits to earth. Thus, ‘The Blessed Damozel,’ a poem of spirits in heaven, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ whose heroine may be a fairy or witch, and whose ghosts are presented in dream only, do not belong in this classification; nor do such poems as Mathilde Blind's lovely sonnet, ‘The Dead Are Ever with Us,’ class as ghost-poems; for in these the dead are living in ourselves in a half-metaphorical sense. If a poem would be a ghost-story, in short, I have considered it a ghost-poem, not otherwise. In this connection I wish to thank Mabel Cleland Ludlum for her unwearied and intelligent assistance with the selection and compilation of the book; and Aline Kilmer for help in its revision and arrangement."


Margaret Widdemer

If you want to learn more about Margaret Widdemer, you can read the short essay titled Asbury Park Life: Stimulus for Author by Peter Lucia.

Note: The preface is courtesy Project Gutenberg Ebook

June 12, 2012

FILM REVIEW

The Circus (1928)

This week Charlie Chaplin's The Circus is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other interesting reviews over there. 


The ending of The Circus, the silent film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1928, reminded me of the ending of a typical Bollywood film where the hero sacrifices his love for the sake of his best friend.

In this film the Tramp steps aside so that Rex (Harry Crocker), a tight rope walker in the circus where they are both employed, can marry the girl of his dreams, played by Merna Kennedy.

As Rex and his new wife, a circus rider and the stepdaughter of the mustachioed owner and ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia), depart with the caravan of clowns and animals for a new town, the Tramp replaces his bowler hat and walks away, his little suited frame moving from side to side in that familiar manner we know so well. 


The film is funny right from the start when policemen chase the broke and hungry Tramp because they suspect him for a pickpocket. The Tramp seeks refuge in the circus and finds himself in the ring, smack in the middle of an act that fails to excite the restless spectators. The Tramp, inadvertently so, brings the circus alive with his mad dash in and out of the big tent with the cop hot on his heels. The audience thinks it is all part of the show: they jump out of their seats, throw their hats into the ring and burst into uproarious laughter, demanding more buffoonery from the Tramp who clearly has more pressing matters on his mind, like saving his skin.

It’s not long before the ringmaster, a mean taskmaster, realises that the fortunes of his loss-making circus lie with the Tramp and exploits the situation to his advantage. However, it takes the ringmaster a while to realise that the Tramp is funny without appearing or meaning to be so. He can't be trained as a clown.


There are many tender moments in this film, like the time when the Tramp, reluctant at first, gives away his single boiled egg and sliced bread to the horse-riding girl who is prohibited, by her overbearing stepfather, from eating for the rest of the day. 

 
As the Tramp turns the circus around, unwittingly, he uses it as a clever leverage to demand better treatment of the girl he has fallen in love with. Later, he overhears the girl tell a fortuneteller of her love for the tight rope walker. This breaks his heart and he begins to under-perform till the ringmaster kicks him out of the circus. In the end he unites Rex and the girl and walks away, as he usually does in his inimitable style.

The most memorable scene in the film is when the Tramp, while running away from the ringmaster (I think), accidently enters the lion’s cage and gets locked in. This scene, captured in the presence of a real lion, or so I read, runs for nearly ten minutes and is an absolute stand-out. It’s an edge-of-the-seat comic scene, if there’s ever one, especially in a silent movie. 


The Circus, one of two of my favourite Chaplin films, the other being The Kid (1921), won the Tramp his first Academy Award. I am not surprised it did for The Circus is one of the most hilarious and entertaining films I have seen from Chaplin’s portfolio. Not all Chaplin films succeed in making you laugh, but this one does and all the way through its 71-minute run.

I have always rated Charlie Chaplin a few notches lower than Laurel and Hardy who will always rank first, for me at least, followed by Buster Keaton, Marx Brothers and the rest of a fine class of comedians that include The Three Stooges, Mel Brooks, and George Burns. 

Laurel and Hardy are as jobless, penniless and hungry as the Tramp, but it is the sheer innocence and cheerful disposition of the duo, in spite of the unending troubles they find themselves in, which endears them to my comic senses. Laurel and Hardy is slapstick in its truest form which often seems contrived in Chaplin’s films: their stark portrayal of life’s realities often overshadows the absurd hilarities I expect from comedy films. With Laurel and Hardy you have no such worries — you sit back and soak up the humour. 



June 9, 2012

Short Stories: William F. Nolan

This weekend I read two sf short stories by William F. Nolan, the 84-year old American writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories, who I discovered for the first time while searching the internet for something specific. Both the stories are well written and were featured in the Fantastic Universe Science Fiction magazine. 

William F. Nolan (© Bluewater Productions) 

Of Time and Texas

“A groundless fear, boy,” assured Ohms. "I have seen to it that the Time Door can never be closed. And now, good-bye, gentlemen. Or, to use the proper colloquialism — so long, hombres!”

The first story, Of Time and Texas, is just 595 words, far short of the Gutenberg legal text of over 3,000 words.

In this hilarious story, written by Nolan in November 1956, Prof. C. Cydwick Ohms unveils the C. Cydwick Ohms Time Door with a grand flourish before a group of reporters and photographers. The Time Door — and not a Time Machine which the professor dismisses as “wild fancy” — will transport people from their world of 2057 to the past, Texas of 1957, and solve mankind’s greatest problem — overpopulation. The professor is confident that his Time Door will succeed where colonising the Polar wastes and birth control programmes didn’t.
 

The professor chooses Texas in the southwest because it has vast lands to absorb people from the future. The only hitch is that the Time Door is a one-way ride: you can re-enter the past but you cannot return to your present.

Prof. Ohms, draped in "an ancient and bizarre costume," steps into the Time Door and prepares to vanish into the past but nothing happens. He is still inside the contraption, blinking. Just as the professor bemoans his failure, the assembled journalists hear a slow rumbling coming from within the Time Door. As the sounds grow louder and closer, the terrified reporters and photographers run for the stairs, and Prof. Ohms finds himself straddling one of the 3,000 Texas steers charging into his laboratory.

I had a strong feeling that the Time Door would work in the reverse direction. I couldn’t imagine the story ending any other way. It was fun to read, especially the part where one reporter asks Prof. Ohms in earnest, “What if the Texans object?” He says, "They don’t have a choice." 


Small World

He was running, running down the long tunnels, the shadows hunting him, claws clutching at him, nearer...

Nolan wrote Small World (also known as The Underdweller and The Small World of Lewis Stillman) in August 1957. It’s much longer at nearly 3,700 words and, unlike Of Time and Texas, is a grim tale that reads more like horror than sf.

Lewis Stillman is, or rather was, a construction worker and the lone survivor of an alien invasion that has destroyed all human beings above the age of six. He has been living in the storm water tunnels beneath the city of Los Angeles for three years — living in hope that he will one day find another like himself; living in fear of the hideous “creatures” that prowl the ground above. Only hunger forces him out of the drains and even then he never risks going anywhere without his trusted gun, for he has been pursued by the aliens more than once. 

One day, Lewis, whose father wanted him to be a doctor, has a sudden desire to read a particular set of medical books — Erickson's monumental three-volume text on surgery — which he had read in pre-med school. Armed with the small gun and a .30-calibre Savage rifle, two of several arms he took from the LA police arsenal, Lewis sets out for Pickwick’s bookstore in Hollywood where he finds the “richly bound and stamped in gold” volumes. His luck finally runs out as he steps out of the store with the carton of books.

“The entire lower floor was alive with them! Rustling like a mass of great insects, gliding toward him, eyes gleaming in the half-light, they converged upon the stairs. They had been waiting for him.”

Lewis drops the carton and makes a dash for the street, firing, running, firing, running, firing, till he finds himself encircled by the aliens, the tiny claws reaching for him… You might guess who those claws belong to.

William F. Nolan, who co-authored the novel Logan's Run with fellow science fiction writer George Clayton Johnson, has a clear style of writing and his prose flows smoothly across the page. Also, the first thing I noticed about Nolan’s writing is that he doesn’t confound you with big words and keeps his plots and characters simple. I can’t judge his writing on the basis of just two short stories and I am looking forward to reading his various series of novels. 



Note: For earlier reviews of short stories, click Anton Chekhov and Sundance Western Comic-Book

June 7, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

A Fine Night for Dying by Jack Higgins (1969)

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Hop over and check out the eclectic mix of reviews by other bloggers. It will be worth your while.

A Fine Night for Dying, in spite of the arresting title, is not one of the best novels of British author Harry Patterson who wrote it in 1969 under his most famous pseudonym, Jack Higgins. The story is predictable, the plot is hackneyed, and the secondary characters are uninteresting. But then, it’s a Jack Higgins and if you are a fan of his, like I am, then you overlook the negative aspects and enjoy the novel, as I do.

Not every Jack Higgins novel can be like The Eagle Has Landed or The Last Place God Made or The Savage Day or Storm Warning or A Prayer for the Dying. If you’d like to dig into Higgins, these are some of the novels you ought to read. 


In A Fine Night for Dying, Jack Higgins resurrects Paul Chavasse in his sixth and final avatar as special agent for the Bureau, the little-known branch of British Intelligence that handles all the delicate assignments, read dirty work.

Chavasse, a master of languages (he even knows Urdu), must investigate the cold-blooded murder of Harvey Preston from Jamaica. The body of the former Royal Army Service Corps officer turned black marketer and smuggler is washed up ashore on the English side of the Channel, with seventy pounds of chain wrapped around him. As Chavasse discovers later, Preston was alive when his enemies drowned him. A horrible way to die.

The trail leads Chavasse to a passage-by-night racket where illegal immigrants from all over the world are promised safe passage across the Channel in the dead of night, except they all turn up dead before they can set eyes on the English coast. And eventually to the brain behind the shady business, Leonard Rossiter, a Jesuit priest who lost his faith during his incarceration and subsequent indoctrination by the Chinese during the Korean War. A man with a “tortured, aesthetic face” who couldn’t possibly be the murderer of innocents and yet that’s what he is.

However, Rossiter, himself, is a pawn in the hands of the Chinese who have few friends and allies on the continent and use his second-rate organisation to run the immigration racket and advance their political goals. 

Predictably, Chavasse, the agent with a heart (as all Jack Higgins’ agents are), goes out of his way to help the mostly poor and unsuspecting immigrants, including an Indian girl who falls for Rossiter, and on a couple of occasions lets his guard down, enough to allow his enemies to capture him. In the end Chavasse, with a lot of help from the revenge-seeking Darcy Preston, Harvey’s brother, hunts down Rossiter and kills him.

A Fine Night for Dying is a mediocre thriller because there are too many gaps in the story. For instance, Chavasse’s trail leads him directly to millionaire Enrico Montefiore, a recluse who hides on his island stronghold, at least that’s what the blurb on the back cover tells us. Inside, Montefiore has been driven to drugs by Rossiter who is after his wealth. Montefiore, himself, has very little role in the story, save for begging Rossiter for his lethal dose. If the blurb is meant to sell the book to the reader, it doesn’t.

Jack Higgins’ heroes (there are at least seven of them, Liam Devlin and Sean Dillon being the more popular ones) are a lot like Mack Bolan, the Executioner — they rarely come to harm and when they do, they manage to get out of the most difficult situations. It’s a miracle they live to tell another story. All said and done, Jack Higgins is a pure entertainer — treat him as such.


Note: I gave Jack Higgins’ The Keys of Hell, another Paul Chavasse adventure, a more or less similar verdict. You can read it here.
Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012: A pictorial tribute

© Creative Commons

"Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it's the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. ...Science fiction is central to everything we've ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don't know what they're talking about."

[This quote is not from the insightful interview Bradbury gave The Paris Review in 2010. You can read that interview here.]


In 1939, Ray Bradbury published Hollerbochen's Dilemma, one of his first short stories, in the magazine Imagination and launches his own magazine called Futuria Fantasia.














Dark Carnival, his first collection of short stories, was published in 1947.


The Concrete Mixer, a short story, was published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1949.


The Martian Chronicles, 1950, and Fahrenheit 451, 1953. During these four years, Bradbury released The Illustrated Man, a collection of 18 short stories, in 1951, and followed it up with The Golden Apples of the Sun, an anthology of 22 short stories, in 1953.





























Bradbury's last published novel was Farewell Summer, 2006, a sequel to Dandelion Wine, 1957.




















A look at a few assorted covers and pages of magazines and comic-books that featured Ray Bradbury's short stories.