Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dumber of the Beast: The Mephisto Waltz by Fred Mustard Stewart

Here’s another “classic” piece of late 60s quasi-Satanic hooey, Fred Mustard Stewart’s debut novel, The Mephisto Waltz. Just look at the reviews on the cover of the 1970 Signet paperback:

A gripping ride into a world of Satanism and Black Magic… impossible to put down. – Saturday Review

Mr. Stewart weaves his eerie plot with diabolical skill. The Mephisto Waltz is a must for every addict of the Satanic and the supernatural. – New York Times Book Review

A Bizarre, unique, and diabolical tale involving sorcery, Satanism, and transmigration of the soul… a devilishly powerful spellbinder. – Houston Chronicle

The delightful horror and the Satanic elements of Rosemary’s Baby, with the suspense carried on a more sinuously fluid prose. - Library Journal

Sinuously fluid prose? I don’t think so. And please, don’t imply it’s better than Rosemary’s Baby. Ira Levin writes with sinuously fluid prose. Fred Mustard Stewart does not. And any suspense is killed at the end of the first act when the author flat out tells the reader the whole business is about the aforementioned transmigration of the soul right down to the Satanic “ritual”. The rest of the book follows the heroine trying to catch up. Stewart also has little skill in the character department. Miles and Paula Clarkson are about as bland as they come, presenting nothing with which the reader can relate. Oh yeah, my husband is involved with a group of Satanists – I can relate to that.

In case you haven’t seen the clunky movie with Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Parkins, and Curt Jergens as the menacing Duncan Ely, the story goes something like this:

Journalist Miles scores an interview with the aging concert pianist, Duncan Ely who immediately takes a fatherly interest in Miles’ own failed career on the concert circus. Next thing you know, Duncan and his lover…ahem, I mean daughter… whip out a bottle of Satanic oil and start mumbo jumboing in Latin and, voila, Paula has a feeling her husband ain’t her husband any more. Stewart throws in the usual business: murdered ex-wives, dead babies, a black dog, the Old Religion reinvented as Satanism, and a mysterious Man in a Bowler Hat.

Stewart scores a few points in the research department. He at least knows his stuff when it comes to the piano and piano music, describing the “sound” of the titular waltz. Late in the book, Paula browses Ely’s library of Satanic tomes and Stewart lists a catalog of essential titles in the Black Magic oeuvre, everything from Malleus Maleficarum to Discourse of the Subtill Practices of Devilles.

If you’re into this sort of Satanic silliness, The Mephisto Waltz can be a fun, two-night read, although it left this reviewer wanting much more. If you only ninety minutes or so to spare, check out the movie. It’s just as bad. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dracula Deconstructed: Dracula (Masterpiece Theatre 2006)

Every few years, our favorite literary and cinematic icons pop up in new film incarnations, be it Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, or my personal favorite, Count Dracula. (Well, I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, especially when he arrives at Baskerville Hall, but that’s a story for another day.)

In 2006, the BBC took blond pretty boy, Marc Warren, put him in a wig that made him look like Jack White on a bad hair day, and tweaked the story we know and love into something… different.

I have my reservations about the casting of Marc Warren (although I love a pretty boy as much as the next guy). Seeing Warren’s Dracula mope around like an over-the-hill Emo boy  on the cliffs overlooking Whitby Harbor makes me giggle every time. But his appearance has the desired effect on Lucy Holmwood. She gets all hot and bothered and invites him back to dinner, much to the chagrin of her new hubby, Arthur.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Arthur, you see, is the anti-hero in this one. Dracula himself takes a backseat to the rivalry between Lord Arthur Holmwood and Lucy’s other suitor, Dr. John Seward. Ten minutes into the movie (and this is no plot spoiler) we learn that Arthur’s father is a syphilitic madman kept chained in his Gothic manor house and that our bridegroom-to-be has contracted the fatal disease as well.

Here’s where my friend, Michelle, threw up her hands in despair and cried, “BS!” You might, too, if you’re a purist and would rather not subject yourself to literary reinvention.

But if you are able to set aside the Dracula tropes, the bats and the wolves, the graveyards and coffins, the capes and the fangs, the vampirism of the story can be read as a parable about Victorian fears of sexually transmitted disease. It spreads from victim to victim and brings about a rapid deterioration in both physical and moral health. The metaphor is clear.

In an attempt to cure himself of the Frenchman’s Disease, Arthur falls in with a group of devil worshippers who offer to cleanse him of the disease. Here’s where Dracula, and a lot of blood, black robes, inverted crosses, and Tarot cards, comes in – big points for quasi-satanic hooey.

Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays Arthur as a desperate man driven by his obsession to rid himself of the disease and consummate the marriage. Tom Burke as his friend-turned-rival, John Seward, is equally strong in his role as the jilted lover who champions Lucy to the grave and beyond. If there is a true Byron hero in Dracula, this is it. Take a look at that face; handsome, sad, bitter, and scarred for life.

It is this subplot and these actors’ performance which brings me back to Dracula for repeated viewings. But some things in the movie work for me while others don’t. I miss Renfield. I can’t quite embrace David Suchet’s Van Helsing which may have more to do with the way the character is written than the way the actor plays the part. Sophia Myles’ Lucy is a modern, assertive woman which is a refreshing change, but Stephanie Leonidas’ Mina is the weakest character in the script, and by weak I mean ineffectual. And for the character of Mina, this is wrong.

Overall, Dracula lives up to the BBC’s and Masterpiece Theatre’s perennially high standard, and since the movie is readily available in most streaming formats for home viewing, worth a look. You might find another classic Dracula to add to your collection.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Psychological Gothic: Blood Secrets

They just don’t write them like this anymore: horror with nothing supernatural in it; lean, mean literary prose that is never pretentious and never bogs down in “style”; a taut narrative that deceptively leads the reader down one terrifying path only to completely pull the rug out from under him in the final act and deliver something far more terrifying than at first would have been thought possible.

Rereading Craig Jones’ remarkable 1978 novel, Blood Secrets after more than thirty years was one of the highlights of my summer. Initially, I didn’t think it qualified for inclusion in The Midnight Room, but the story has stuck with me like a bad sunburned that itches for months afterwards. This is the sort of book that many current authors working in the field of psychological suspense would benefit from studying.

You never think this kind of thing really happens to people who’ve been to college. So begins the first person narrative of Irene Rutledge, an intelligent woman from an intelligent family working on her PhD. From the first page we know she has committed a crime. What follows is a compulsively readable tale as mesmerizing as a slow moving train wreck.

Irene is a beautiful red head, the sort of young woman who could have any man on her college campus. But much to the chagrin of her best friend, and the reader’s, she chooses a lanky, awkward weirdo named Frank Rutledge. Frank is at first resistant, and all along we keep telling Irene to leave him alone. He’s keeping you at bay for a reason. Nothing good will come of this. But Irene ignores our better judgment, marries the man, and the crazies start to come out of the woodwork. First, there is Frank’s sister, Vivian, who sets Irene’s mind reeling with implications of family relationships gone wrong. Then there is Frank and Irene’s daughter, Regina, who couldn’t be more pathologically sub human if she tried. Things only get worse from there.

No biographical information on Mr. Jones is forthcoming other than his name being the by-line for a movie tie-in of the film, Fatal Attraction. My paperback edition of Blood Secrets is a reprint of a Harper and Row hardback which suggests two things. The first is that Jones might be a pseudonym for an author who wanted his (or her) identity kept far removed from this sordid little shocker. The second is that the hardback may be readily available in the stacks at libraries across the country. If you’re lucky to find it in your town, grab it and read it. If not, keep an eye out for it at used book stores (I found mine for a dollar) and on eBay (there are plenty of copies to go around at affordable prices.”

At 229 pages, this is definitely one that you will stay up late reading. Blood Secrets has my highest recommendation.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Swamp Gothic: The Alligator People (1959)

What do you get when you cross a Gothic Romance with Creature From the Black Lagoon? Twentieth Century Fox’s 1959 B Movie classic, The Alligator People, though it tries hard to be an A List picture. It’s got some great black and white photography shot in extra-wide Cinemascope, and Roy Del Ruth’s direction keeps it afloat… plus there’s Beverly Garland on hand to lend the picture respectability. It’s all good gothic horror movie fun until the last fifteen minutes when it descends into Man In a Rubber Suit Sci Fi nonsense. Let’s take a look.

Things start off pretty well with a framing device in which Jane Marvin (Garland) submits to a sodium pentothol induced trace and begins to regale her psychiatrist with a fantastic yarn about her alter ego, newlywed Joyce Webster. Methinks the studio needed to pad the running time of the movie which, even with the unnecessary prologue and epilogue clocks in at a paltry 74 minutes.

Joyce and her husband, Paul, are traveling by train to their honeymoon destination when Paul receives an urgent telegram. Paul deboards the train to make a mysterious phone call, only to vanish, leaving Joyce to prowl the train compartments looking for her husband like a cat in heat. Okay, I made that last part up. But she does go on a months-long search to find the missing husband. Of course for the sake of plot convenience, she married Paul without knowing a thing about him. But an old letter from Paul’s college days gives Joyce a ray of hope with a swampside address, The Cypresses.

Joyce arrives in Bayou Landing, suitcase in tow and hangs out at the deserted train station relying on the kindness of strangers to give her a ride to her ultimate destination. Who should that stranger be but none other than half-drunk gun-happy hook-handed Cajun Mannon, played to the hilt by Lon Chaney Jr. Mannon is a gator-hater at heart, and to prove it he tries to run over one of our web footed friends on the way to drop Joyce off at The Cypresses.

Joyce has some nerve, just showing up at a creepy old plantation house without an invitation. Here’s where the plot starts to get iffy, and the dialogue even worse. Mistress of the house, Lavinia Hawthorne, is openly hostile towards a stranger barging onto her property looking for a missing husband (and rightfully so) but she foregoes better judgment and extends Joyce some good old Southern hospitality in the form of an invitation to spend the night… and then locks her in her room.

Deny it though she will, the audience knows full well that old lady Hawthorne is in fact Paul Webster’s mother, and here comes our buddy Paul in a trench coat with some nifty alligator skin makeup sneaking in and out of the house under cover of the night. He needs the trench coat because it rains all the time in Bayou Landing.

Somehow I seemed drawn to the music. A theme that I had heard before. Somewhere. Who else lived in this strange household? Who could be playing in the dead of night? I couldn’t rid myself of the premonition that each step took me closer to the secret contained in this shadowy house.

Next thing you know, Joyce hears mysterious piano playing in the night and is slowly drawn in a dreamlike trance to the music room. She opens the door to the music room and sees the piano player in full light but somehow she doesn’t recognize her husband’s shape and features. I always scratch my head over that one, but the next sequence more than makes up for it. The Alligator People frequently forgoes any sort of logic in favor of action and suspense.  

Joyce begins to get suspicious that the mysterious night visitor is none other than her missing husband (ya think?) After another late night serenade at the piano, Paul goes running into the dark and stormy night, Joyce following in hot pursuit. Switch Beverly Garland to the ripped, rain-drenched costume, the one that shows plenty of thigh and cleavage; cue the rain machine, unleash the trained alligators, and …Action Lon Chaney!

Things get really wild at this point with Mannon rescuing Joyce from imminent alligator attack one minute, dragging her into his swamp side shack were he proceeds to slap her hard enough to render her unconscious so he can have his way with her the next. Good old Paul arrives just in time to keep Mrs. Webster’s virtue in tact.

Paul delivers Joyce safely back to The Cypresses, but not before she finally gets a load of those scales growing all over his face. It turns out that Paul has become the victim of medical experimentation gone horribly awry (reptile limb regeneration anyone?). Local mad scientist Dr. Sinclair is convinced he can revert the process, but no one was counting on Mannon to run screaming into the laboratory, "I'll kill you alligator man! Just like I'd kill any four-legged gator! Ya hear me? I'll kill ya!"

It’s all down hill from there. Mannon botched the experiment and the make-up department ushers in the piece de resistance, a bad rubber alligator head… and I mean, really bad. Seeing is believing folks, but I’ve indulged enough spoilers today so you’ll just have to rent this masterpiece of monster mish mash yourself.

In all fairness, it’s not nearly as bad as I make it out to be. Okay, maybe it is. But as is often the case with movies like this, irresistible camp trash is in the eye of the beholder. This is one of those treasures I like to trot out on lazy Sunday afternoons. After all, what else am I going to do? Watch football?