Saturday, August 25, 2012

Classic Gothic Romance Cover Artists: George Ziel

It’s been awhile since The Midnight Room took a trip to the used paperback bookstore. This week I’d like to introduce readers to the terrifying Gothic imagery of George Ziel (1914-1982). Whereas artists like Harry Bennett and Lou Marchetti emphasized the romantic elements in their Gothic Romance paintings, George Ziel emphasized the Gothic. His heroines wear expressions of palpable fear, eyes often wide with terror. If that isn’t enough, he frequently incorporates other Gothic and occult elements including black cats, skulls, candles, and swarms of black bats that skitter across the painting.

Original painting for Paperback Library for the cover of Shorecliff by Marilyn Ross

Ziel’s images of death and fear are so striking that he employed virtually the same style for his series of thirty-one cover paintings for Jove’s paperback reprints of New Zealand mystery novelist Ngaio Marsh, as well as covers for the George Simenon reprints for Pocket Books.

Gothic Romance collectors, however, are more familiar with his work for Paperback Library where he produced outstanding covers for titles by such prolific writers as Christine Randell, Dorothy Daniels, and Marilyn Ross, often delivering three to four paintings a month. In an era when writers could not produce original Gothic Romance novels fast enough, publishers such as Paperback Library often reprinted older mysteries and some classic works, sometimes with new titles, always with an eye toward attracting the readers who sought these books ravenously, month after month, for nearly two decades.

Archivist Lynn Munroe presents an extensive portrait of Ziel’s life and work at Lynn Munroe Books wherein he states: “Ziel appeared to have tapped into our darkest fears and nightmares, and presented them on vivid paperback covers. Some of them were romances, some were mysteries; all of them were haunting. The average reader, with no knowledge of Ziel’s past, could only wonder. To those who knew his story, the signposts were all clearly marked. Like all great artists, George Ziel drew on his own experiences and memories, his own visions and nightmares, to infuse the horrifying world of his best cover art. Although he rarely signed his name or received a printed artist credit, he nonetheless became a true modern master of horror.”

The story of Ziel’s past is as horrifying as any of his covers. He was born Jerzy Zielezinsky in Poland in 1914 where, as a youth he was relegated to the Warsaw Ghetto before ultimately being shipped off to Dachau.

As “an artist; he felt a powerful need to create art that the restrictions at Dachau could not destroy. Paper and pencils were forbidden, so Jerzy used to sketch on pieces of scrap paper using bits of charcoal. He made sketches of his fellow prisoners and of life in the camps.  When Dachau was liberated, Jerzy was taken to a hospital. During his convalescence there, he turned his rough sketches into drawings and created new images from the memories burned into his mind.”

Is it any wonder then that Ziel’s covers for Gothic Romance paperbacks are infused with more dark imagery than the majority of his contemporaries?

For more book cover goodness, visit the George Ziel checklist at Munroe’s website. I’d also like to personally thank Munroe for allowing me to use material from his exhaustive overview of Ziel’s life and work.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Satanic Madmen: Hjalmer Poelzig

I can’t pronounce it either. But Bela Lugosi can. Listening to Lugosi’s fractured English in a non-Dracula role is one of the joys of this 1934 Universal horror film, especially when he intones the classic line, “Supernatural perhaps – baloney, perhaps not.”

The Black Cat owes next to nothing to the Edgar Allan Poe story from which it draws its title, yet somehow manages to capture the essence of Poe in its strange tale of obsession, paranoia, and revenge.

During a raging storm (is there any other kind?), Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) and a hapless American couple who are his traveling companions to Visegrad, find themselves seeking shelter at the home of Werdegast’s arch enemy, the architect Hjalmer Poelzig (Karloff) who made off with Werdegast’s wife while Werdegast was in a prison camp for the past fifteen years. The minute we lay eyes on Poelzig we know this guy is up to no good…in a bad, bad way. I mean, look at that haircut, guyliner, and lipstick. Eww.

Under Edgar Ulmer’s script and direction, Poelzig is as serious a diabolic madman as has ever been put on film. Poelzig’s house is a modern expressionistic nightmare perched atop the ruins of Fort Marmorus which he had commanded during the war, an army which he ultimately betrayed to the Russians causing the death of thousands of Hungarian soldiers. Poelzig lives on top of the graveyard of the soldiers he led into death.

If that isn’t evil enough, wait till you get a load of the former wives and lovers he keeps in suspended animation, displayed in glass boxes which he likes to view while stroking the titular feline. You call that a collection? I call it fifty shades of necrophilia. You don’t think he just looks at them do you?

Werdegast is no slouch himself in the weirdo department. Though his characters is the protagonist, his performance is laced with menace, fear, lust, and a thirst for revenge involving a scalpel. Early in the film he engages in some inappropriate touching of the young bride of his traveling companion, a gesture so creepy and pervy it makes me wonder how it made it past the Hollywood censors. According to the events surrounding the film’s production as detailed at 366 Weird Movies, The Black Cat was heavily edited before its release. Most of the old Universal monster films leave us with a sense of fun. This one makes me want to take a shower after I’ve watched it.

The plot is occasionally hard to follow which may be due to these edits. Nevertheless, things build to a devilish climax when it becomes clear Poelzig and his disciples are about to celebrate the Rites of Lucifer and he intends to sacrifice the innocent American bride. The ritual room is good stuff, complete with socialites in black cowled robes, Poelzig sporting a pentagram amulet, and a piece of set decoration that looks suspiciously like an inverted cross. Strong stuff in 1934, it still has hypnotic power over the viewer today. 

If your ideas of Karloff and Lugosi begin and end with Frankenstein and Dracula, prepare yourself for a truly bizarre Gothic thriller. The Black Cat is available on DVD in The Bela Lugosi Collection along with other lesser known Universal horror films The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday.

Friday, August 10, 2012

In Search of the Psychological Gothic

Earlier this year when I started self-publishing my writing in eBook form, another writer encouraged me to come up with a moniker or other identity for myself and my writing. I landed on the term Psychological Gothic which seemed to fit what I try to accomplish in my stories. My four published and one forthcoming work are all stepped in Gothic atmosphere, all with an Old Dark House as a central character in the stories. In terms of structure and characters my stories are psychological thrillers.

I doubt that I'm the first person who put this combination of words together, so I have scoured the internet in hopes of finding some reference to the term. The only thing I have been able to find is a write-up on a low budget independent thriller from 2008 in which the reviewer stated the movie combined the psychological thriller with Gothic horror. That can apply to any number of books and movies. Why not come right out and use two words instead of four?

The obvious Psychological Gothics would be Turn of the Screw and a trio of Shirley Jackson novels, The Sundial, We Have Always Live in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House. Turn of the Screw and The Haunting at Hill House share a few things in common. They are each ghost / haunted house stories that have captivated the public’s imagination for years. They also have a deeply disturbed heroine and, film versions aside, the novels leave the story open for interpretation. Are Eleanor Vance and The Governess actually experiencing paranormal manifestations, or are they simply mad? This is no easy feat to pull off, which is another reason why these literary works have endured as long as they have.

Not being overtly horror novels, The Sundial and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are not as widely read and revered as The Haunting of Hill House, I would still suggest that all three are Psychological Gothics. The Sundial features a family of crazies holed up in a brooding old house waiting for the end of the world, while We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a mesmerizing portrait of a criminal mind told from that mind’s (as unreliable narrator) point of view. In all three of these books the reader encounters Jackson’s themes of agoraphobia, a psychological ailment which the author herself suffered.

I propose that a number of novels from the second half of the twentieth century which were labeled horror at the time of publication are really Psychological Gothics. Today we tend to refer to them as “quiet horror.” Thomas Tryon’s classic, The Other, and even Rosemary’s Baby with the Bramford standing in for the Old Dark House and Rosemary’s increasing sense of paranoia, are solid examples of Psychological Gothics. Even the classic romantic suspense novel, Rebecca, places more emphasis on the psychology of its characters than did the hundreds of Gothic Romance imitators which followed in its wake. One needs only to read any number of Daphne Du Maurier’s other novels to come to the conclusion that she was writing psychological thrillers.

Psychological Gothic is more proliferate in the movies: Session 9, Dark Water, The Others, even Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the Hitchcock films Psycho and Vertigo fit neatly into this category.

Today, there are a few writers of crime/psychological thrillers who are edging into Gothic territory. The Irish writer, John Connolly, whose private eye, Charlie Parker, is haunted by ghosts and other supernatural manifestations in such relentlessly dark novels as Every Dead Thing, The Unquiet, and The Killing Kind is often compared to Stephen King, if for no other reasons than that parts of his series are set in the backwoods of Maine, and there are bona fide supernatural occurrences in the stories. Connolly writes in a typical American noir/hard boiled style and his ghosts are never exploitive, something which makes the events in his novels that much more chilling.

A few years before the movie came out I stumbled on Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. Browsing the reviews on GoodReads, a number of readers panned it for its melodrama, “trick ending”, and “horror movie trappings.” What was clear to me and what many readers either can’t accept or just don’t want to stomach, was that this book is a richly layered Gothic thriller. That is what Lehane set out to write and he pulled it off brilliantly. Teddy Daniels steps into the Old Dark House (Ashcliffe asylum) in the midst of an over-the-top Gothic storm (the hurricane) in search of a monster (an escaped lunatic)… ultimately confronting his own demons. If this is not a Psychological Gothic, I don’t know what is.

Because I really enjoy this sort of thing, I’m still searching. The titles I’ve mentioned here are the obvious choices, but I know there are others. I’ll find them. If you have titles to add to the genre, drop me a line. We’ll make a list on Amazon or GoodReads. I’m always looking for unique titles in both fiction and film to review and promote here. And if you are surfing the interwebs and find reason to throw the term at someone, be my guest. I haven’t trademarked it yet.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Satanic Madmen: Nicholas Blair

In which I try to recap one hundred episodes of Dark Shadows in one thousand words or less.

June 25, 1968. In the great foyer at Collinwood, three knocks are heard at the door, signaling to the audience that a new character has arrived.

What ho! What have we here - a dapper looking man in a tailored three piece suit sporting a Snidely Whiplash mustache, introducing himself as Nicholas Blair, cousin to the recently disappeared Cassandra (whom everyone at home knows is really Angelique in a smart black wig). Roger Collins does the noble thing and invites him in for a drink. Right away, Barnabas suspects this one is up to no good. His eyebrows raise and he gives Julia the eye. You know, that eye, the one they always give each other when the other actors are mugging for the camera. Then Julia does that thing with her nose, that “I smell a rat” thing, and we just know this one’s a bad apple.

In spite of all the supernatural hokum which was rolled out at four o’clock every day for more than five years, producer Dan Curtis knew what he was doing when it came to casting. Dan had fed us ghosts, witches, vampires, a thing called a phoenix and even a Frankenstein monster, what can he throw in the pot next?

Enter Nicholas Blair, Warlock Extraordinaire, In League with the Dark One and making no bones about it. Besides, he’s a snappy dresser, so he can’t be all bad, can he? Remember the ZZ Top song about the Sharp Dressed Man? It works. Trust me. I’ve been there.

Years ago when I first joined the internet and didn’t know what else to do with it I got involved in a Dark Shadows roleplaying group and picked Nicholas Blair as my character. The girls in the group took to calling me Nicky B. Somehow that took all the menace out of it. But I digress.

Meanwhile, back at the Collinwood estate, Nicholas has High Satanic Priest Fun with Angelique, turning her into one of those Hammer style vamps complete with flowing white dress and low neckline. Well, not too low. It’s daytime television after all. And being In League with the Dark One, Nicholas immediately sets about trying to destroy mankind by creating a superhuman race to…um, destroy mankind. I never have figured out why Satanic Madmen always want to destroy the human race, like all those guys in Lovecraft Country, Wilbur Whately et al. Nevertheless, Nicholas needs a woman to mate with Adam, the aforementioned Frankenstein monster in order to create these superhumans.

Adam was rather clumsy and had lots of scars. He is a Frankenstein Monster after all, even if he does wear a nice green sweater, but he needs a mate. Nick pulls off something really stellar – he summons the spirit of a 17th Century murderess, Danielle Roget, and through Satanic Ingenuity, brings to life Eve. Still with me? Good. Eve is this full figured, gorgeous red head who flits around the cemetery in a stunning black evening gown, occasionally snagging it on one of the many artificial trees. It doesn't slow down Eve one bit, but the actress does stammer her lines a bit.

Just like in the movies, the Bride of Frankenstein - I mean Eve rejects our hand stitched homeboy and makes eyes at Jeff Clark, Vicki’s time tripping boyfriend. Who’s Vicki, you ask? Not important, so let’s move on. She’s about to abandon ship anyway, so who cares?

In grand soap opera style, Adam strangles Eve in a fit of jealousy and then throws himself off Widow’s Hill in a fit of despair, putting the kibosh on Nicholas’ superhuman race idea.

This is all hunky dory, Daytime Friendly Satanism and all. But Dan decides to push the envelope for once. Nicholas sets his sights on the lush Maggie Evans. (Don’t know who she is either? Just another simpering heroine with an annoying voice.) First, he has to get Joe Haskell, Maggie’s worthless, humorless boyfriend out of the way so he commands Angelique to bite Joe and make him start acting goofy. See, that whole Angelique as a vampire subplot came in handy. Now Maggie is free to date Nicholas. He’s suave, debonair, and independently wealthy, how could she resist?

Meanwhile, back to Angelique. We all know she’s a vengeful drama queen, so she takes a little side trip to Hell and tells The Man Downstairs that his faithful servant isn’t so faithful. He’s fallen in love for God’s sake…er, you know what I mean.

Nicholas gets summoned to the Principal’s Office and slapped on the wrist for this love business and is sent back upstairs to make the ultimate sacrifice - that would be Maggie Evans at a Black Mass complete with altar and black candles and Nicholas waving his arms and intoning just about my favorite line of the entire series, “let the Legions of the Damned salute you!” Cue red lights so we know things have gotten really out of control.

It’s all downhill after that. Dan needed to wrap up the Nicholas Blair storyline so he could start the werewolf stuff. Nick tries to revive Eve with Maggie’s life force, but Barnabas swoops in on his bat wings and saves the day. Nicholas goes up in a ball of flame, and that’s all she wrote. Which is a shame. I really like Nicholas Blair. That don’t make Satanic Madmen like they used to.

The Nicholas Blair storyline is available on the Dark Shadows DVD Collection volumes 8-10.

Too Much Horror Fiction: Blackwater IV: The War by Michael McDowell (1983):...

Will Errikson continues his review of the six volume Blackwater Saga, one of my favorite books of all time. Southern Gothic, Gothic Horror, Family Saga, call it what you will, Blackwater is in a league of its own.

Too Much Horror Fiction: Blackwater IV: The War by Michael McDowell (1983):...: Using his considerable storytelling skills in The War , the fourth book (April 1983) in Blackwater , his pop-lit Southern-Gothic-lite pap...