Plague Diary 17: A Film About the Plague

There Is Only One Film I Know About Quarantining from the Plague

In the early 1940s, a Hollywood movie producer named Val Lewton (his real name was Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon) was responsible for a handful of great horror films in which the effects were more psychological than crude, which placed him pretty much in a one-man category.

Today, I saw (for the nth time) his film Isle of the Dead (1945), set on a strange Greek island during the First Balkan War (1912-13). Boris Karloff plays the Greek General Nikolas Pherides who, together with an American journalist, rows to an offshore island to visit the grave of his wife. He finds that her grave had been broken into and her body stolen. Worse yet, he lands on the island only to find that one of the guests in the house where he is staying has died of the plague.

Karloff and the other people on the island must quarantine until the wind changes. Once the hot, dry sirocco wind begins to blow, that particular strain of the plague dies off.

Boris Karloff as General Pherides, “The Watchdog”

The psychological element introduced by Lewton is a superstition of a vampire-like creature called a vorvolaka which is promulgated by a Greek peasant woman named Kyra serving in the house. Karloff, who prides himself by his nickname of “The Watchdog,” buys into the possibility of the truth of this superstition, blaming a young serving woman who is enjoying rubicund good health for being a vorvolaka.

The film is a scant 72 minutes long and would be an excellent choice for a Quarantining-at-Home Film Festival, even if it is one lone title. There is also an Elia Kazan film called Panic in the Streets (1950) which involves the plague but has no claustrophobic quarantining.

 

 

Ten Short Horrors

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Think of this as my Halloween contribution. For the last several years, I have celebrated Halloween not by Trick-or-Treating, not by gorging myself with candy, but by reading collections of horror stories, mostly those published by Dover Publications. I find that the best works of horror fiction are usually not the longest (sorry, Stephen King), but either short stories or novellas.

Here is a list of ten of my favorites, in order of publication:

  • Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the red Death” (1842)
  • J S Le Fanu, “Carmilla” (1871)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Body Snatcher” (1884)
  • Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw” (1898)
  • Bernard Capes, “An Eddy on the Floor” (1899)
  • W W Jacobs, “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902)
  • Arthur Machen, “The White People” (1904)
  • Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows” (1907)
  • M R James, “Casting the Runes” (1911)
  • H P Lovecraft, “The Colour Out of Space” (1927)

Happy Halloween, and Boo!

 

Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

Paying Tribute to “The Prince of Darkness”

Paying Tribute to “The Prince of Darkness”

The 6’4” Englishman was one of the greatest villains in all of the cinema. He reached his apogee in the Hammer horror films made from the late 1950s into the 1970s, with my favorite of his productions being the title character in Dracula Prince of Darkness, released in 1966. More recently, he has played Saruman in the Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus (?!) in the later Star Wars films. I also remember him fondly as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973). If you scan his filmography, you will be surprised how many great roles he played over some six decades plus.

What with the film industry being what it is today, there are not a lot of great villains. Now they’re selected more on the basis of having a villainous face rather than any acting talent. One of the reasons for his success is the variety he brought to his parts. As he once said, “One thing to me is very important, if you’re playing somebody that the audience regards as, let’s say evil, try to do something they don’t expect, something that surprises the audience.”

Well, he surprised and delighted me for many years. I will miss him grievously.

 

Happy Halloween!

It’s the Most Boo-tiful Time of the Year!

It’s the Most Boo-tiful Time of the Year!

I know that all of you are either getting ready for some serious cosplay or stockpiling candy for the ravenous hordes preparing to descend onto your doorstep. Be sure to read some scary books (see my post entitled Thirteen More Horrors for a reading list) and see some scary movies (see my post entitled Thirteen Horrors for a list of my faves from last year).

It’s Good To Be King

An Ode to the Carnie Lifestyle

An Ode to the Carny Lifestyle

After a lifetime of hating Stephen King—not that I ever gave him much of a chance—I picked up Joyland chiefly because I thought the cover illustration by Glenn Orbik (above) was hot. It showed a scene that was not even in the book: a red-headed Erin Cook (a co-worker of the book’s hero) screaming in fear while casually wielding a Speed Graphic camera which, if she had ever made a regular practice of doing so, would have left her with a forearm like Popeye’s.

So, what did I think? Actually, I liked the book. Partly because I am drawn to the whole carny world after reading William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, and partly because I thought King exercised admirable restraint in crafting the novel. I wasn’t quite sure about the action scenes at the end, and there were a couple of connections I never quite understood, but I liked the tone of the whole thing.

Devin Jones is a twenty-one-year-old college student who spends a summer working for a North Carolina amusement park called Joyland. He is a man who has been discarded by his apathetic girlfriend Wendy, who, once she parts from him, consigns him to oblivion posthaste. He likes the carny lifestyle, makes friends easily, discovers he has a talent for entertaining “zamps” (small children), and doesn’t object to some of the less desirable tasks around the midway.

He is drawn by the mystery of a young woman named Linda Gray who had been killed by an unknown assailant in the scary funhouse. In fact, he drops out of college and hangs on into the fall, when the only work is preparing the park for the next summer. During that time, he makes the acquaintance of a young mother with a severely disabled son—one who can foretell the future. You can bet this figures in the plot. Devin finally loses his virginity—to Annie Ross, the mother—and becomes a favorite of her son.

Stephen King

Stephen King

Finally, it all comes together for Devin. The killer is … someone Devin knows who calls him at home minutes after his discovery and lures him to the park, where King suddenly goes into overt mode. Perhaps one of the reasons I haven’t liked King all these years is that I thought he was too overt and not sufficiently psychological. But Joyland strikes a nice balance.

Also, I loved all the carny slang, which King took from this website. Maybe, I’ll read some more King: I always liked Kubrick’s film version of The Shining. Perhaps I’ll read that, or Dolores Claiborne, as suggested by my friend Lynette.

Strange Joy

Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Every October, in honor of Halloween, I love to read classic horror stories. This last week, I read Hugh Lamb’s Dover collection of rare finds entitled A Bottomless Grave and Other Victorian Tales of Terror. Last year at this time, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but this year I ventured on Shirley Jackson’s other famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which is equally spellbinding. (What I do not bother to read are the Stephen King and Dean Koontz type of novels that go in strictly for crude shocks.)

Usually, haunted house novels like to go in for crude effects. In contrast Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is delicately nuanced. Does this haunted house really do any damage with all its noise and strange writing on the walls and apparent destruction of one lady’s wardrobe? Actually, it does only one thing: It recognizes in Eleanor Vance, a spinster who is one of the party investigating the house, a kindred spirit. And it wants her. Badly.

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

The real terror is not external, it resides within the human breast. Eleanor had spent her adult life as a nursemaid to her mother, who has died before the action of the story begins. She has, as the saying goes, no life of her own. The one line that keeps running through her mind during the course of the book is, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”

For Shirley Jackson to see into the tortured heart of Eleanor Vance—and through all the flummery of haunted houses and planchettes—makes her one of the great writers of horror fiction. And this after Eleanor’s initial response to the house, which is one of horror and loathing. At the risk of giving the whole shooting match away, I will continue the quote that ends the last paragraph:

Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.

This book deserves on the same shelf with that other great psychological story of haunting, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

Victorian Genre Fiction

Sherlock Holmes Was Not the Only Game in Town

Sherlock Holmes Was Not the Only Game in Town

The paperback whose cover is illustrated above first came out in 1972, followed by three other volumes of non-Sherlock detective stories written during the same period. Edited by Hugh Greene, brother of Graham Greene, the books were a revelation to me. I started Reading Richard Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories; Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados stories (Carrados was blind, and could read the London Times by feeling the elevation of the ink on the paper); the novels and stories of the vastly underrated Arthur Morrison; Jacques Futrelle’s “Thinking Machine” stories (Futrelle died on the Titanic); and Baroness Orczy’s The Old Man in the Corner Stories.

And that was only the beginning! I also noticed that the Victorians and Edwardians wrote excellent horror stories as well, and that many of them were available from Dover Publications, including such luminaries as Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, Mrs. J. H. Riddell, and Wilkie Collins. Now, in the age of the Kindle and other e-books, one could pick up virtually all of Blackwood’s short stories in two “megapacks” for a mere $1.98. There are even two well-known “psychic detectives” investigating hauntings and possessions, namely Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, the self-styled “psychic doctor,” and William Hope Hodgson’s Max Carnacki, the ghost detective.

The stories are, for the most part, available readily and inexpensively now that their copyright protection expired years ago. It may still be difficult to find some Arthur Morrisons such as the Martin Hewitt detective stories and the stories in The Dorrington Deed-Box.

Even G. K. Chesterton got into the act somewhat later with his Father Brown stories, which are in a slightly different vein, but which owe much to Arthur Conan Doyle and his “rivals.”

A good way to start is to find Hugh Greene’s collections on eBay or Amazon.Com and, if you like them, dig around in used book stores, or, if you are on a budget, Amazon Kindle and its “rivals.”

The Power of Magical Thinking

Author Shirley Jackson

Author Shirley Jackson

As of two days ago, all I read of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was a single short story, “The Lottery.” That should have told me something about the author, except it was so many decades ago that I read it. Then, last night I finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a novel about a family in a small town that is hated by the townspeople because of a murder by poisoning that had taken place there six years before.

The inhabitants of the house include Constance and Merricat (Mary Katherine) Blackwood, and their aging Uncle Julian, who is in a wheelchair. It was the 29-year-old Constance who was suspected of poisoning her mother and father by adding arsenic to the sugar. She was tried and acquitted for lack of evidence. The mutual suspicions remaining after the trial have isolated the Blackwoods in their old gothic house: Only Merricat goes into town twice a week to do the grocery shopping. Although the townspeople are presented as curious and mostly hateful, the Blackwoods themselves live a serene life—until something happens to disturb their peace.

That something is the arrival of Charlie Blackwood, their cousin, who has eyes on Constance and what he imagines is the family money. There quickly develops a mutual animosity between Merricat and Charlie. Here is what the former thinks:

I was thinking of Charles. I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

A Book Worth Reading

A Book Worth Reading

As much as she would like to be able to do these things, Merricat has no supernatural powers. (If she did, no one would be safe.) But she decides that a particular day would be the last day of Charlie’s unwelcome visit. At that point, all hell breaks loose. I will not divulge the ending, which is strange and curiously satisfying, but I will add Shirley Jackson to the list of horror story authors I discussed in my post of two days ago entitled Thirteen More Horrors.

In addition to “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House. I highly recommend that you give her work a try.

Thirteen More Horrors

These Are My Favorite Horror Novels and Stories

These Are My Favorite Horror Novels and Stories

Three weeks ago, I posted a list of my thirteen favorite scary films. You can catch it by clicking here. This time, I will give you a list of equivalent novels and short stories that are guaranteed to send chills up your spine. They are presented here in alphabetical order by the last name of the author:

Algernon Blackwood: Just about anything by this prolific author is great. My favorites are “The Willows” and “The Wendigo.”

Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes and The October Country.

Wilkie Collins: I am particularly partial to The Woman in White.

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw. Utterly brilliant!

M. R. James: I like the collection entitled The Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Be sure to read “Casting the Runes.”

Sheridan Le Fanu: This Irish writer wrote my favorite vampire novel, Carmilla.

H. P. Lovecraft: Read just about anything by this great short story writer. The Library of America edition of his works is your best starting point.

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend combines sci fi and vampires in a curiously effective mix.

Edgar Allan Poe: You can’t beat the original. Try his only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which isn’t read much these days, but which I love. His short stories are, of course, brilliant.

Mary Shelley: Everyone reads Frankenstein, but I think The Last Man is even better.

Robert Louis Stevenson: What else but The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

Bram Stoker: I liked Dracula, though it can be a bit tedious at times. See Le Fanu and Matheson above for better vampire novels.

John Wyndham: Another sci fi and horror combo worth reading is The Day of the Triffids, which is not at all like the movie.

You may have noticed the omission of several prominent names, especially such current purveyors of horror as Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, William Peter Blatty, and so on ad infinitum. I just don’t happen to like any of them. I used to like Anne Rice, but lost interest in her years ago. The above writers will, I think, outlast many of the current practitioners.

For some writers I must admit ignorance: I suspect Shirley Jackson is great, but I haven’t read any of her works yet. (Note to self: Maybe now’s the time to start.)

Thirteen Horrors

Scene from Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf

Scene from Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf

This being the start of Halloween Season, I thought I’d recommend thirteen horror films that have, over the years, continued to scare me. (Let me begin, however, by saying that nothing has scared me more than seeing Ted Cruz try to do Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.)

It was difficult to limit the list down to thirteen. In the process, I had to omit some real classics, such as the original Universal Frankenstein and Dracula, plus some more recent films such as Dracula Prince of Darkness and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. But I guess that is in the nature of things when trying to narrow down such a large field.

The films below are listed in alphabetical order:

The Black Cat (1934), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, starring both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Frightening and very weird.

Black Sunday (1960), directed by Mario Bava, starring Barbara Steele. One of the very best of all the vampire films.

Carnival of Souls (1962), directed by Herk Harvey, starring Candace Hilligoss. A superb film made by a bunch of nobodies in the Midwest, but curiously affecting. See it if you can.

The Cat People (1942), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur. One of Lewton’s atmospheric horror films that are among my favorites.

Curse of the Demon (1957), also called Night of the Demon, directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Dana Andrews. Probably the scariest film on this list. After multiple viewings, it still works!

The Hour of the Wolf (1968), directed by Ingmar Bergman. Another take on the vampire myth, this time from Sweden.

Kwaidan (1964), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, an anthology film based on stories compiled by Lafcadio Hearn in the 19th century. In wide screen and gorgeous Technicolor.

The Leopard Man (1943), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur. (I was torn between this and the same duo’s I Walked with a Zombie).

Nosferatu (1922), directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck (“Terror”). The original Bram Stoker Dracula plot, set on the Continent. Probably the best of the silent horror films.

Scene from Rosemary’s Baby

Scene from Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby (1968), directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow. Polanski had a gift for making great horror films.

The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson. Find out why all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Ugetsu Monogatari (1952), directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. A classic and lyrical Japanese ghost story that just happens to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Vampyr (1932), directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. This is probably the scariest vampire film ever made. There are a lot of bad prints of this Danish film, so it’s worth getting your copy from a good source, like Kino-Lorber.

Are there any horror classics you’d like to add to this list? Use the comments for your suggestions.