19 Jan 2018
An update on the stuff I consumed over the past couple of weeks, including “Paperbacks from Hell,” “From Sherlock to Holmes,” “Once Upon a Mattress” and “The Return of the Black Widowers.”
Sometime in the late 1960s, black became the new green. Maybe fed by the disruptions among the disaffected young and certainly fueled by the Manson murders, horror leapt from the grave and became the hot genre.
For the next couple of decades, popular fiction, movies, and TV shows were populated by demons, devils, chainsaw-wielding maniacs, succubi, warlocks, possessed children, dolls, and dogs.
And let’s not forget the demon Nazi leprechaun called Gestapochauns of John Christopher’s “The Little People,” whose covers in the hardback and paperback versions show a sharp contrast in who their audiences are.The history of the genre is described in loving, bloody detail in “Paperbacks from Hell” by Grady Hendrix. To those of us who spun the paperback racks at the discount drug stores, Hendrix’s lavishly illustrated book is a grisly Valentine to a misspent youth spent reading about children’s hospitals haunted by ancient Indian spirits and demon-worshiping cults who ensnared teenage girls (always nubile, always innocent) into their unholy rites.
Hendrix tells their stories with great good humor and an abiding affection. He points out how writers like George R.R. Martin, Joy Fielding, James Herbert, and Whitley Streiber contributed to the genre, even if them would later cursed with amnesia when asked about it. His observations are frequently punctuated with punchlines. When he discusses Brian McNaughton’s trilogy, “Satan’s Love Child” “Satan’s Mistress” and “Satan’s Seductress,” he summarizes them as “failed families led by crummy parents who’ve given up trying to raise their kids; sort of like Rick Moody’s ‘The Ice Storm’ with more shoggoths.”
It’s a field full of weird stories that make Stephen King’s upbringing seem like “Leave It to Beaver.” There’s the well-known one of V.C. Andrews, whose familial rearing inspired her seven novels before her death. With the help of Andrew Neiderman and a publisher who realized nobody cared, she continued to “write” another 68 novels. Then there’s Anne Rice, born Howard Allen O’Brien, once described herself as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. When she wrote about her vampire hero Lestat, she said she was writing not about who she was, but who she wanted to be.
“Paperbacks from Hell” is, simply put, hell on wheels, and great fun to read.
“Grand Budapest Hotel”
I had been on a Wes Anderson kick the past few months. I haven’t seen them all, but I did get through “Moonrise Kingdom” (loved), “The Darjeeling Express” (thin), and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (miss). I still think, if you like movies as works of art, if you care about editing, music, mis-en-scene , story construction, character construction, if you see and think about movies as personal expression, you can enjoy spending time with Anderson. I plan on seeing them again, and I’ll probably revise my opinions of them.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” affected me on some level as an alternative-world glimpse into the world of Middle Europe from the last hundred years, when a lot of history stamped over it. The story jumps eras from the hotel’s heyday, its decline under an unspecified (but obviously Soviet) occupation, and today. You pick up on the signals, but only as tones, leaving Anderson’s story of the hotel’s head concierge (played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes) to shine.
Accompanying the movie is a book called “The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel.” A previous book covered all of Anderson’s movies; this one is devoted solely to GBH. If you finish a DVD and are disappointed if there is no commentary track or behind-the-scenes documentaries, this is a book to treasure.
Other things I saw / read / pondered
* “From Holmes to Sherlock” by Mattias Bostrom, an excellent history of Sherlock’s journey from Conan Doyle’s pen to the TV series by Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat.
* “Once Upon A Mattress” with Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman. The Broadway musical based on “The Princess and the Pea” made Burnett a star when it opened in 1959. This 2005 version puts Ullman in the Burnett role, while she plays the evil queen. Also starring Tom Smothers and Zoey Deschanel. Charming and instructive in how to refresh a familiar story.
* “The Return of the Black Widowers” by Isaac Asimov. The last collection of his mystery short stories featuring the Black Widowers, a group of six men who eat at a restaurant every month, served by their imperturbable waiter, Henry. Each dinner, a mystery is brought up (usually by a guest, who as part of the ritual is questioned after dinner, in return for a free meal). The mystery is always solved by Henry after everyone else takes a crack at it. Asimov’s mysteries are consistently good, often excellent, and it’s a sin that the publisher has not a) released the entire series of 66 stories in two books reminiscent of the Sherlock stories (with Asimov’s notes, of course), or b) released them as ebooks. Shabby treatment, I say, because they’re still great to read. The last volume features the final six stories, plus a selection of the best, plus an introduction by Harlan Ellison, a pastiche by the editor, Charles Ardai, and the last word from Asimov’s memoir.