Saturday, November 22, 2014

Two Love Stories, Separated by Sixty-plus Years - and Talent.

I don’t suppose it matters — because the picture is so much fun — but why is The Shop Around the Corner set so resolutely in Budapest? Is it because Ernst Lubitch was feeling homesick for Europe?  Is it because the story, even by 1940 standards, is so very much a contrived fairy tale that the studio believed no one would swallow it unless it was presented as happening in a far-off land? 

It’s very curious. This is the only odd or off-key note in the whole silly, wonderful movie. We are never shown any views of the city, the shop could be located almost anywhere in the world. Indeed, the names of the characters are Hungarian… but that’s where it stops. In all other aspects the employees of this shop are as American as apple pie. After all, we’re talking principally Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullivan and Frank Morgan — the Wonderful Wizard himself, out of Oz and balancing a small department store against a faithless wife. Only two of the supporting characters — including Felix Bressart doing essentially the same things that he did in Lubitch’s Ninotchka just a year before — have even remotely foreign accents, and the young messenger boy sounds as if he was pulled straight off the streets of New York. None of them would seem out of place if the picture was set in say, Chicago at the turn of the century. 

Everything about The Shop Around the Corner is so very damned American that it’s jarring — it pulls you out of the story every time a reference is made to Budapest. It makes no sense! Why, O Why did they do it? 

There’s never any doubt in The Shop Around the Corner as to where the love story is going, what’s going to happen next and how it’s all going to turn out… it’s the kind of picture that the audience can and does write in their heads alongside the action unfolding onscreen. But Lubitch has such a lightness of touch that we can never take our eyes off the thing even when we can practically recite the dialogue alongside the actors. In one sense, the performances are unremarkable: the cast is doing just exactly what they are noted for always doing, bringing to the screen exactly the same qualities that they always bring — but when you’re talking about Stewart and Morgan especially, that thing is always a great pleasure to watch. As for Margaret Sullivan’s Klara — she comes across as more than a little bit of a spoiled brat, and in this she may simply have been playing herself. 

It doesn’t measure up to Ninotchka, but then, what could? If Ninotchka is a beautiful lemon meringue pie of a movie, then The Shop Around the Corner is a perfectly serviceable chocolate cream. Bring a bib and tuck in. It’s nothing you haven’t eaten before or won’t eat again, but it’s tasty nonetheless.

So, if The Shop Around The Corner is a completely artificial and contrived love story that somehow works wonderfully as a cinematic confection, why is Last Chance Harvey, made sixty years later when you would have thought that evolution would have amounted to something, a completely artificial and contrived love story that stinks like last year’s cheese? It is at least as sincerely and skillfully acted; ah, but “sincerity” is the one thing director / screenwriter Joel Hopkins isn’t guilty of.

Dustin Hoffman plays a past-middle-age sad sack with essentially nothing to live for. The first half-hour of the movie is spent more or less gleefully driving spikes into Hoffman’s neck, hammer blow after hammer blow. Just when things are at their worst, here comes a “chance” (Hah!) encounter with Emma Thompson to save his life and make everything All Better. Ms. Thompson works in the international airport in a capacity that is elusive to say the least. Essentially, her character works in the airport because that’s the only place that the Hoffman character could reasonably expect to cross paths with her.

It gets worse, coincidence piled on improbability. In real life, the Thompson character would call the cops on Hoffman — but no, they walk. As they walk, they talk. This takes up a good chunk of the movie, and it’s the best part of the thing… the only part that gives Last Chance Harvey at least a reasonable claim to being a movie for adults, about adults, with no explosions in it. As noted, the performances are as flawless as you would expect. Hoffman is as vested in this as in any of his roles, while Thompson basically has to look tolerant and give a wistful smile every now and then.

At no point is there any kind of a cynical twist that would lend at least a hair of realism to the thing. Even The Shop Around the Corner has an affair and a misunderstanding in it: Last Chance Harvey is just gushing sweetness and light. The final blow occurs just at the end. Unsatisfied with providing phony happy endings for everyone else in the picture, Hopkins backtracks and provides Thompson’s mother (the great and woefully misused Eileen Atkins) with a phony happy ending of her own. Because nobody is compete without love, right? And everybody’s got to be complete, right? Anything less and it wouldn’t be a product of the insipid and unforgivably pandering Modern Cinema. There is a genuine sophistication buried deep, deep, way down deep under The Shop Around The Corner; but beneath Last Chance Harvey there’s only emptiness and manipulation.

— Freder

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Whoever he is behind that Mask...

After forty-however-many years, the 1966 Batman TV series is finally out of legal purgatory, and the long-awaited, long anticipated DVDs are here! I meant to approach them with discipline and limit myself to the two-episodes-a-week that originally ran all those years ago, but as usual my sense of self-restraint is negligible at best: like a pig, I dove right in.

Oh, my; 1966 happened a long time ago, but the premiere of Batman on ABC was one of those moments that you never forget, even if you were only seven years old. There are certain scenes from episodes 1 and 3 that I remember vividly from my first viewing; and I remember going to my bedroom after watching them to draw picture after picture of Batman and Robin, of scenes from the show.

I was one of those kids who didn’t get that it was a comedy. 

Batman ’66 took an awful beating from comics fans throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Maybe this was based on resentment: not just for making comic books, which we took so very seriously at the time, look silly and trivial, but for our own naïveté, for making us realize, once we had grown up enough to “get” the jokes, that we had been duped as children; that the show we watched breathlessly as kids was really an over-the-top pie in the face.

But I suppose the thing has come full-circle: today, Batman ’66 is being as openly (and lucratively) embraced by the comics biz as it was reviled for thirty years prior. Even DC publisher Paul Levitz, who once actively opposed the home video release of this show as “not being the image of Batman” that he wanted to perpetuate, is now on board and happily promoting away as if his job depended on it. Ain’t money wundafil? Don’t money do wundafil things?

The truth is that DC brought it on themselves: stylistically and in content, the TV series is almost slavishly faithful to the Batman comic books as they were in the mid-sixties. With villains whose plots were outright silly and trivial, and Bat-mite here and Bat-everything else there, Batman comics were simply goofy and over-the-top… which is perhaps why DC Comics was, around this time, getting its collective ass kicked all up and down the block by a certain upstart called Marvel and its Master Schemer, Stan (the Man) Lee.

So instead of dissing the Batman TV show, comics fans really should have looked at the comics that it was specifically based on and realized that here was actually a pretty damned savvy and sophisticated realization of a character and series that, by rights, should have been 100 percent unfilmable.

Dosier’s Green Hornet — another series I wish would come to DVD — wasn’t, as I recall, nearly as overtly camped out as Batman, because the comics were that much more sensible; but thank goodness his Wonder Woman series never got made! The pilot alone is enough to make your teeth curl.

But for Batman: these are things I still remember from the first viewing all those years ago: The Riddler cackling away as he prepares to crush Robin’s head in a vise… The Penguin dropping a gigantic umbrella into the middle of a crowded Gotham City street, Bruce Wayne slowwww-ly being rolled into the furnace at the end of that episode. I remember the knockout performances by Gorshin and Meredith and Romero and Newmar, and to a lesser extent by Victor Buono and David Wayne and Anne Baxter and George Sanders. I remember the gaudy polychrome color and the wonky camera angles. And let’s not forget Adam West’s courage, his comedic timing, his still-remarkable voice and the way that he used it. I remember all these things and need little more inducement to weep for a world that’s gone: because it was never just a TV show.

At our house, in those days, we had the only color TV set in the  extended family; and so, when my uncles and aunts and cousins realized that the show was no good without color, they would all come over every Wednesday and Thursday night to watch the show with us… a regular family event.

It was shortly into the second season of Batman that my Father pulled up the stakes around our little family and moved us halfway across the country from Minnesota to Maine. I know this only because we were still living in Edina, Minnesota when the Batman movie came out between seasons one and two. I never got to see that movie in the theaters, but I did get to see the trailer: it was showing in front of a stop-motion animated picture called Willy McBean and His Magic Machine. I had pestered my father and made a general nuisance of myself until he consented to let me go to Willy McBean, but as it turned out I forgot the movie almost immediately, while I vividly remember the trailer for Batman to this day!

The move to Maine was a shock to the system from which TV shows like Batman and Frankenstein Jr. were the only constant. In fact it was Batman that got my parents to finally postpone my bedtime… the show aired an hour later on the east Coast than it did in the middle of the country. 

The point is that we had a Pop Culture in those days. We had a culture that connected us. With only three TV networks, no cable, no internet, if we weren’t actually watching the same show as our friends, schoolmates and families, we at least knew what they were watching. I would argue that there’s no such thing as a Pop Culture anymore, nor can there be, because the amount of entertainment options that we have before us today are so vast that very few of us are on the same page.

The rights battles surrounding Batman ’66 were so lengthy and venal and chewed up so much money that I suppose it’s to be expected that the DVD release is, despite all the touted extras, really a kind of bare-bones affair. The episode menus are utterly generic, the package design is nice, but looks as if it took a skilled designer about an hour to slap together. Ditto the booklet that comes with the set.

But at least the show is here, at last — with the full uncut episodes as they have not been seen since its premiere. The image has been gently restored, although not sweetened. Likewise the sound: a 5.1 surround remix might have been lovely, but wouldn’t have reflected the show as it aired. What we get is the original monaural track… it gets the job done. There’s been some complaining about the price tag, but I got mine for around $150… with all three seasons included on 15 disks, that’s about ten bucks a disk and fair is fair. It seems to me that Just Making This Release Happen was an expensive proposition; if they had to cut costs to keep the price reasonable, they’ve cut in the areas that were best cut.

Given my own druthers, I might only have picked season one. I doubt that I’m alone in this, which may be why the show is only available as a complete unit. Batman burned very brightly indeed for one season, and then, as even Adam West notes, began to flame out in a hurry with Season Two. By season three, the producers were frankly desperate. I could have lived without Seasons Two and Three… but then again, Yvonne Craig wears that Batgirl costume awfully well…

Even to modern eyes, it’s easy it see why these remarkable first season episodes made such a colorful splash in the black-and-white world of the mid-sixties. But what makes Batman ’66 a classic today?

It was much, much more than a simple TV show. It was a Time, and it was a Place. It was a Milepost against which we measured our lives. It was a great, gaudy, polychrome Grand Opera. It was both the beginning and the end of an Age.

— Freder

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Monsters Within, Monsters Without...

It’s a reasonable argument that all the great screen Mawnsters of film history — your Draculas, your Wolf-and-Cat People, your King Kongs and your Creations of Dr. Frankenstein — are not simply “misunderstood,” but destroyed for the very reasons that make them beautiful.

For most of them, especially in the days when Mawnsters didn’t so much kill people as just look at them out of the movie screen with their hands or paws raised in a vaguely defensive pose, their only real crime was in Daring to be Daring — for rejecting the bland, and for being (much) more interesting than anyone else in the movie. If there’s one thing that angry villagers can’t stand, it’s people who have the temerity to reject the villager’s life of quiet desperation and instead color outside the lines, with all their innate individuality and talents on display for the world to see… the ones who choose Live Large in a world of pygmies.

Because God Forbid anyone should be Different. God forbid anyone should reject the Status Quo, and live a bright, burning life as a Magnificent Mawnsteh! Quick, John-Boy, light the torches! We have one of those pesky individuals to burn.

That began to change in the early-to-mid 1940’s, when Hitler and WWII had finally impressed upon audiences that the real monsters were not the ones who just needed a haircut or who happened to have bolts plunged into their necks, but were instead people just like themselves. In the movies of the ‘40s that I’ve been watching this Halloween season, the monsters (they don’t deserve to be called “Mawnstehs”) are altogether commonplace.

Queen of Spades, a British thriller from 1949 starring Anton Walbrook and Dame Edith Evans in her first screen role, does have a supernatural element… but it’s less in the way of a horror movie and more a cautionary tale with some chilling bits. Nonetheless, the chilling bits are genuinely chilling, as Walbrook frightens an old lady to death in his attempt to wrest from her the secrets of gambling with cards. Later, her spirit comes to call on him in his lonely garrett — bearing a gift that we all know he shouldn’t ought to take. This being the era of human monsters (that is, common people who give in to their lowest, darkest instincts), he of course ignores common sense and charges blindly and happily to his doom. It’s all done with shadows and candles and snow and dark passageways. To twist the old joke, when you look up the word “atmospheric” in the dictionary, Queen of Spades is the definition. 

In at least two of the classic chillers that Boris Karloff did with Val Lewton, there is nary a Conventional Monster in sight. Isle of The Dead presents us at first with a standard “quarantine” drama in which a group of people are stranded together in a place from which the only escape may be death. Death Himself is present from the opening frames of the film, and dogs the characters (there are no heroes) throughout. Karloff not only lends it gravitas, but leads us on; his character resides in the dark of human experience. But the real monster in Isle of The Dead is simply these: Superstition and Ignorance. It’s because of these that something horrible, something not at all supernatural, happens to a character that we had previously dismissed as insignificant: and from there on the final ten minutes of the picture become a Shakespearian drama of Fate playing out in the most horrible of ways. Isle of The Dead teases and sets us up for its entire first hour, and just when you’re starting to nod off it delivers a single shock of the first magnitude, after which all you can do is watch helplessly.

Bedlam is even more terrifying: because it’s real, and because it could still happen today. Karloff plays the apothecary general of a notorious London madhouse, whose cruelty towards the inmates is only exceeded by his greed, and the obsequious subservience he displays to his Tory patrons. Since the story is all about a moral and philosophical awakening, we begin with Anna Lee in a decidedly anti-heroine role, as the protege (more than somewhat arrogant herself) of a fat Tory lout. But when she objects to the treatment of the asylum’s inmates (and, more specifically, when she clouts Karloff across the face with a riding crop, a sin for which you know very well that she will not be forgiven) — you guessed it, Karloff pulls a few strings, and his rich patrons see to it that she is herself committed into the asylum — and into Karloff’s waiting hands.

This is the single scariest thing about the picture: you know that this happened all the time, and you know that it still happens all the time. Stand up for what’s right, make a nuisance of yourself to the wrong Rich People, and see how fast you’re put away in a dark place where no one will ever hear from you again. 

We still live in a world where people can be spirited away for no good reason… where people can have their property and even their children taken away from them; where they can be murdered by the police just for having the wrong skin color, or for standing on their rights. Here indeed are the monsters that are more terrifying than any werewolf, any vampire, any Frankenstein’s creature: here are the brainless Angry Villagers who have been empowered by the wealthy to enforce the Status Quo. Reject the principles of enslavement, color outside the lines… and watch how fast they light the torches. 

— Freder

Thursday, October 23, 2014

There's a Circus in Your Pocket

Whether you're on the fence about ordering the physical pack,
or just want to have the Zircus available to you wherever you go,
The Fool's Dog app version of Tarot of the Zircus Mägi is for you! 

Packed with features, including an expanded version of the "Little White Book"
included with the physical deck and the original novel that inspired the deck,
this bargain-priced package puts the Zircus on your device
-- with beautiful Retina graphics -- in all its gaudy glory!

Available for both Android and iOS (universal iPhone/iPad app) devices,
this is your budget ticket into the Big Top ... but be warned,

Android users click here to view and order:

iOS users click here to view and order: 

The Great Circus of Life:
in the PALM of your

-- Freder.

Monday, October 20, 2014

We Were The Last

I had a dream about the old house last week. My mother and her brother (my Uncle John) drove me out there in the dead of night, and I broke in through the back way. It turned out that I had left things there, and I needed to collect them and save them. There were things from my mother’s collection that the auctioneers had somehow passed over, and that I hadn’t had the time to take. I went through the whole house in the dark, grabbing up loads of my mother’s past and mine as well. I made trip after trip out to the car, filling up the back seat. My mother and Uncle John just sat in the car beside each other while I worked. I didn’t like the way that they looked at me. 

Before he moved out West, shortly after the funeral gathering for my brother-in-law that I did not attend, my father passed on the news that the new owners of the family house out in Albion were going to tear it down.

He said that the big barn was already gone. This is the main reason why I could not bring myself to attend my sister’s husband’s service: their house is just a quarter mile or so and around a corner from the Old House, and I can’t bear to ever go out to Albion again, not for anyone, not for any reason. It’s done, it’s done. It’s done. 

But still the news made me so sad, just made me shake my head. Sure, the old place needed work, but it was basically sound; and more than that it was a grand rambling house with so much potential, so much that could have been revived. It needed a new roof, mainly… replacing this with the original cedar shakes would have been unimaginably expensive, but a metal roof could have been put on the place quite economically, and I’m no longer as opposed to metal roofs as I used to be. For one thing, the snow slides off!

Once that was done, there were a handful of interior walls that needed repair, but I see this done all the time on the plethora of home remodeling shows that are all over TV these days. Take the opportunity while you’re doing it to re-insulate with modern materials, it could have been the grandest house once again.

But they waited too long. The roof needed to be done ASAP, and in the four years that they’ve owned the place they did nothing. And when, in a strange mood, I looked at the most recent satellite pictures of the house from above, I saw that the roof had fallen in over the bedroom right next to mine… there it was, a big, gaping hole in the roof. 

I feel now more than ever that somehow, some way, my mother was the glue holding the old place together. As soon as she died, so did the house begin to die. I wrote about all this four years ago here on the blog, so I won’t rehash it here. 

The house needed the new owners to be saviors. Instead, they spent all their efforts cutting down every single tree and bush around the place so that it looked like it was sitting in the middle of the Sahara. And now it’s too late for them. For it. For the place.

All of this has been on my mind lately, not because I’m unhappy in my current place (which is the opposite of true: every single day I thank my lucky stars for my current home, and especially for the way it has embraced all of the past history that I brought to it; I am so very lucky) but because I do believe that houses have spirits; and the news that my Dad gave me felt like another Death Knell in the family. The Old House was my home for more than thirty-five years. Now it’s going — perhaps it has already gone as I type this. 

The Google Earth pictures were bad enough: looking at them I felt the way people in wars must feel when their homes get bombed into rubble. I didn’t dwell on them long. I know that I could never go back out there again. It’s why I couldn’t go to my brother-in-law’s service.

And yet there is a perverse part of me that is a little bit glad that no one will ever live in that house again. We were the last. It served us well, just exactly as long as it needed to. 

— Freder

Monday, October 13, 2014

Where's Count Floyd When You Need Him?

I have to confess, my Halloween viewing has been pretty danged dreary so far this year; and it’s been full of reversals. Well, a guy can change his mind, right?
I started with a few Universal programmers from the ‘forties, of which the ones I liked best were the ones I remembered liking the least. It just goes to show, I suppose, that low expectations can go a long way. I particularly enjoyed a B horror/comedy called Horror Island, with Dick Foran starring and Leo Carillo in a colorful role as an ex-pirate. Carillo was one of those steady supporting players who was really, really good at doing what he was good at: providing the color, much of the charm, and the comedy relief. The picture is a complete toss off intended as filler for a double bill… not even remotely scary and only a little bit funny, but I did find it enjoyable this time, strangely.

Of course King Kong is still the monster of all monsters; still a great picture with hardly a frame of wasted footage, and a picture that in no way needed to be remade by anyone… much less turned into the ponderous, overbearing sap-fest that is Peter Jackson’s version. But Mystery of The Wax Museum, made that same year and starring Kong’s leading lady, Fay Wray? I had fond memories of this… only to fall asleep on it last night. It’s good bits are still very, very good indeed (and the final revelation of the villain remains the best and most effective unveiling of any criminal mastermind, bar none, as Fay pounds Lionel Atwill’s face in self-defense) … but the good bits are so far between: after an arresting opening the thing descends into a very ordinary procedural headed by a very uninteresting Gal Reporter. Fay isn’t introduced until almost halfway through, and then the director doesn’t know how to photograph her to best advantage. Atwill is marvelous when we see him, but we don’t see enough of him. When this was remade as House of Wax nearly three decades later, the procedural was dumped and the filmmakers wisely did not fall into the trap that Mystery does of revealing the monster’s face early and often. I can’t say House of Wax is a better movie but — in all but that one single scene, that one single shot of Atwill’s face cracking and breaking under Miss Wray’s blows — it is smarter.

Probably the biggest reversal of all was the movie version of Todd MacFarlaine’s comic series Spawn. The first time I saw this a couple of years ago, I thought it was harmless, goofy fun, with lots of well-designed demons filling the screen and lots of action. 

What the hell was I thinking? Was I drunk? Ehhhh, could be. This is one of the worst funnybook movies I’ve ever seen, and I have seen some stinkers! Poor John Leguzamo mugs underneath literally piles of make-up; meanwhile, Martin Sheen gives hands-down the worst performance of his career (actually embarrassing to watch), Nicol Williamson phones it in and collects his check, and the hero never ever seems to put the mask on to cover his ugly face. Mix it up with an old, old revenge motivation, a really cringingly painful script and direction from poverty row… and I feel asleep on this load of crap, too.

Honestly, for this and other reasons, this Halloween viewing season has been mostly disappointing. Who in hell is the damn programming director? Oh, wait… that would be me.

— Freder

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Shake, Shiver, Rattle, Roll III: The Annual Halloween Music Playlist for 12014

I thought that I had my annual Halloween playlist carved in stone a couple of weeks ago… but instead I have been tinkering with it to no end. I like the songs to have variety and to contrast with each other in both tone and style, and I like the transitions to be as seamless as possible, and the list this year just wasn’t gelling for me. I have been distracted most all of the year, and the last month has been especially, ehm, “diverting.”

But at last, with a little more work just this morning, I think I have the coffin lid nailed down on this puppy. At last — at last — I am able to present my annual Halloween playlist for 2014.

This year I’m going to make you an offer. Some folks have wondered where to find these cuts, and you know, the thing is you find them everywhere and I’ve been kicking around a fairly long while now. A handful of my closest friends will get copies of this list on CD, but I obviously can’t include every Bela, Boris and Morticia on the distribution list. However — if you want to send me a blank CD and a self-addressed return envelope with sufficient return postage already affixed, I’ll be happy to burn you a copy of this year’s list. Include three CDs if you want the lists for all three years that I’ve been doing this. Click on the “Contact the Duckmeister” link in the sidebar and shoot me an email if you’re interested.

And without further ado, let’s draw back the moth-eaten curtain on this year’s sampling of music for the only worthwhile Holiday Season!

1) Emilie Autumn is a recent discovery for me… but instead of her music, I open the playlist with an evokative spoken-word piece of hers called “Words From The Asylum.” It makes for an arresting opening… the more so because this girl really is crazy (I mean that in the Nicest Possible Way… she’s one of My People) and the piece is only slightly fictional.

2) So far, I haven’t been able to resist using a cut from The Birthday Massacre somewhere on the list. They add a purple bite. This year’s entry is “Falling Down,” from their album Walking With Strangers

3) Heaven help me, I actually love a group called Adrian H and The Wounds. I’ve got both of their albums. Adrian himself has a voice like sandpaper and the group takes advantage of it. “Murder In the Forest” from their self-titled second album is one of their absolute best: a clunky, noisy, broken-down truck of a song.

4) Arch Obler, the great Horror Impresario of Old-Time Radio, creator of Lights Out, is up next with a cut from his LP Drop Dead. It’s a remarkably efficient (and also very funny) example of gross-out horror called “I’m Hungry”… and I don’t know who the actor is, but he gives the best bang-on impression of Peter Lorre ever, bar none.

 5) The Hi-De-Ho Man, Cab Calloway is back on the list this year with an early version of “The Saint James Infirmary Blues,” one of his signature songs and kind of an obvious choice, really…

6) How I managed to leave that crazy Screamin’ Jay Hawkins off of last year’s list is beyond me… but he’s back this year with “Frenzy,” — a song that I first heard when it was used in the X-Files episode, “Humbug.” It is Pure Crazy and wonderful.

7) I always try to include a classical piece and this year’s selection is more whimsical and evocative than scary: “Aquarium,” from Saint-Seans “Carnival of the Animals.”

8) From Sopor Aeternus and the Ensemble of Shadows I needed something short that also was representative of his/hers/its inherent gruesome weirdness. “The Dog Burial” certainly fits the bill. 

9) Making her debut appearance (but not her last) on these playlists, Blues Diva Besse Smith serves up her “Graveyard Dream Blues,” from the two-record set, Any Woman's Blues, that I inherited from my buddy Bruce Canwell (he of the great Library of American Comics) when he made vinyl a thing of the past in his music collection. 

10 and 11) Next up are two cuts from a long-defunct jazz ensemble known as The West Coast Workshop. They’re from The Wizard of Oz, an album from the late ‘60s that uses Harold Arlen tunes as a jumping off point for the most amazing modern jazz riffs. “The Dowser and the Thaumaturgist” is both eerie and wistful (two good qualities for All Hallow’s Eve), while “Ozwind” starts out almost painfully nostalgic before going full-out mystical and spooky. I’ve written about this album elsewhere on the blog. Great stuff!

12) After a one-year absence from the list, Bobby “Boris” Picket and the Crypt Kickers are back — not, as you might expect, with their hit “The Monster Mash,” but with an even funnier piece that led off side two of their only album, “Me and My Mummy.”

13) … which is the perfect lead-in to a selection from Tales of The Frightened, a spoken-word story of love from the other side, told by the genuine Boris Karloff!

14) The only problem I have with “Flood II” as a blood-pumping mood piece is that it runs six minutes, which is about two minutes too long. Still, it makes for a good contrast to the last few cuts. It’s by The Sisters of Mercy (who are all men) from their album Floodland.

15) Nox Arcana’s albums are all largely of a piece, and any one of them will do for the season. From their Poe-inspired album Shadows of the Raven, I selected “Melancholia.” The music certainly captures the spirit of the title, and I imagine Morticia Addams’s melancholic sister Ophelia sitting beside an old gramophone, cuddling her lilies, with this piece playing.

16) 2014 was the year I officially “discovered” the musical sub-sub-genre Gothabilly… here, from a group called The Spectres, I offer “Blooduckin’ Cowboy.” It’s from a Skull Records “sampler” album called Gothabilly Razin’ Hell.

17) Johnny Cash joins the list this year with a song I can’t listen to without tears: “Wayfaring Stranger.” 

18) And again for a change of mood (because we need one after the seriousness of Cash’s cut) here’s the head-banging, pulse-pounding metal group Halestorm with a little number from their album The Strange Case Of… called “Love Bites — And So Do I.” 

19) While your head is still pounding from that baby, you’ll appreciate the much more soulful Loreena McKinnett with her soft, melancholy, seasonal ballad “Samhain Night.”

20) Almost there: Just for fun, Inkubus Sukkubus is back with one of their more whimsical cuts, “Goblin Jig.”

21) And I wind it all up by going all serious on you again, as Folk legend Ola Belle Reed regales us with her unique Southern Gothic style in “My Epitaph.” Don’t bring me flowers after I’m dead!

And we’re out of here! I’m tired of typing and my head is ringing. See you in the graveyard!

— Freder

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Briefly Noted...

Because I wanted to focus on my TAROT OF THE ZIRKUS MÄGI (and it's worth focusing on... you can check it out here if you haven't already), I let a couple of milestones go by quietly, just adding links over there in the sidebar to the right. But they are worth noting here in plain sight...

First, the new mini-site devoted to my next novel is up and running. It's a strange little number called Baxter Bunny Escapes, and among other things to come you can now read the first two chapters complete online. Chapter Three is coming soon. Although my work on this project has been slowed by one thing and another (oh my goodness, just scroll on down to the older posts if you're wondering what the delay could possibly be...) I'm still hoping to have this ready for print early next year.

But that's not the only project on my to-do list, by a long shot, and I've just launched another mini-site that will allow you to follow the creation of The Marvelous Oracle of Oz from the very beginning right up to the moment that it goes to print. Only six cards have been designed so far... but even that small amount ought to give you a good feel for what the deck is going to look like. I'm really hoping to have this project done by Christmastime. Yeah -- wish me luck with that...

So -- go explore! These are two fun projects that are on my front burner... and any and all input / feedback / thoughts would be welcome.


-- Freder.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bring On The Monsters

I’ve written about the TV series Supernatural before and don’t want to overdo it, but it’s worth noting that just as I was falling out of love with the thing it gobsmacked me with two smashing episodes back to back.

If I hadn’t ordered up Season Four before I watched the last three episodes of Season Three, I might not have ordered it up at all. The show has always skirted pretty close to the very edge of what was acceptable to me, blood-and-gore-wise, and at the end of season three they didn’t just cross the line, they leaped over it. In two otherwise interesting episodes, sequences of explicit Saw-style torture porn horror were included, in one case including the graphic cutting out of a man’s heart while he was still alive — making the show (for me) pretty much unwatchable. It was with that bad taste in my mouth that I began Season Four… and discovered that the whole series had gone South in a different way, and for different reasons.

Without warning, Supernatural goes all Holy and Christian on us, with Angels and even Mister God His-sef becoming Main Characters. Suddenly, Dean is morphed into a bible-toting crusader for the Christian faith. Even if I was a bible-thumper myself, which I emphatically am not, I’d have to say that God has no place on a show like this. Besides which — in a world where the supernatural can encompass all the mythologies of the world, it seems downright stupid of the show’s producers to marry the series so completely to The Bible. How to Limit Your Options in One Easy Step. 

So I deeply suspect that Season Four will be my last… I just can’t buy into all this Angel crap. But before I go, it was danged good to get two powerfully fun and successful episodes back-to-back in the last couple of days. Both fall into the category of “Tragical Comedies or Comical Tragedies,” but that’s where the similarities end. 

In “Monster Movie,” which was filmed in black-and-white in a manner that strongly evokes the great Universal Monster Movies of the thirties and especially the forties, Sam and Dean go up against no less than the vintage film incarnations of Dracula, The Wolfman and The Mummy… and the script cannily ties it all into Supernatural’s own distinct canon. It is immensely enjoyable, with some laugh-out-loud moments, some good creepy chills, and a great Ultimate Monster. How close is the detail? One scene even mimics the distinctive “shock” close-ups of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula by highlighting the vampire with spotlights that actually miss his eyes by inches! Fans of the 1931 picture know what I’m talking about.

The next episode, “Yellow Fever,” opens with a scary-suspenseful sequence that abruptly turns into what is undoubtedly the biggest out-loud belly-laugh of the entire series, bar none. So again it’s a comedy episode, with Dean literally in danger of dying of fright, but the monster at the core of the story is tragic enough to lend a little weight — and a couple of genuinely chilling moments — to an episode that shows off Jensen Ackles’s comic timing to the maximum.

So — even though I’ll probably be parting ways with the Winchester boys after I finish this season somewhere around Halloween — I’m happy to know that despite some really dumb over-all planning, the show still has some genuine juice left in it. I felt the same way about The X-Files in Season Two: the over-arcing story of UFOs and government conspiracies was already becoming tedious to say the least — but then like a shot in the dark came the wonderful episode set in a circus sideshow, “Humbug” — probably my favorite show of that entire series. 

P.S. Proving that every TV series misfires at some point, this year’s new batch of Doctor Who has been a decidedly mixed bag. Is it a creative friction between Peter Capaldi (who is wonderful as The Doctor, don’t get me wrong) or has Moffat just gone off his rocker? For almost all of the first five episodes Moffat has been trying to turn it into The Clara Show… which pisses me off to no end. The Companion is important, but The Companion is not the star of the show. Last week’s entry, “Time Heist,” finally nudged the thing back in the right direction. We’ll see where it goes from here. I can’t just give up on it yet — Capaldi is too good, and one hopes that he will finally be allowed to star in the show that bear’s his character’s name…


— Freder.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


is now available for immediate shipping.

Only 500 copies were printed for the First Edition,
and I can't promise that there will be a second.

A truly Magical deck.

The Circus Arts provide a perfect milieu for the Tarot.

There are stars and roustabouts, successes and failures, dreams and nightmares. The clowns, acrobats, equestrian acts and entrepreneurs, each with their fond expectations or dashed hopes, all comfortably express the truths and secrets underlying the realm of the Tarot. The two worlds merge as seamlessly as if they were meant for one another.

It’s been an eighteen-month journey for me, combining two of my lifelong interests: the performing arts and mysticism. Far from being just an "art deck" or a "gimmick" deck, every effort has been made to create a genuine working deck aimed at practitioner and novice alike.

Here's some of what people are saying:

"I received my deck and it's GORGEOUS!!!
The pictures, the gloss, the stock, just GORGEOUS!!!"

"Thank you for a beautiful deck. I love it."

"Wonderful, the art is beautiful and the concept inspired."


"The stuff of dreams"

"... will awaken some very deep realities in people."

"I love the atmosphere this deck invokes."

"Amazing...  I am looking forward to both using
and showing off my deck whenever I can. "

"Wonderful! Thank you. I can't wait to conjure
up the circus with this fabulous deck."

But don't take their word for it:

Every card in the deck can be viewed at .


"The attraction of the virtuoso for the public
is very like that of the circus for the crowd.
There is always the hope that something dangerous will happen."
- Claude Debussy.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Haunted Bookshop


Last night, for the first time in months, my dreams were not confused and dark. Last night, for the first time in years, I visited a couple of Magic Bookshops. 

Other than to (very occasionally) visit my friend Ellen at her shop, The Children’s Book Cellar, I haven’t set foot in any bookstore since I more or less deliberately got myself fired from the last one I worked at, The Colby College Bookstore. And that was a horrible experience. I was hired to be in charge of the Trade Books department, but for the first year and a half I was not allowed to do the job I was hired for. When at long last I was finally let off the leash and allowed to actually order books and manage the department, I was undermined at every step by the Insane, uber-micro-managing cow who called herself my boss.

I tried very hard to make the place into A Really Good Bookstore. I figured that I had a license to do this because our clientele, our “community,” was made up of students, professors, and other academia workers — that is, people with brains in their heads. My boss had been blindly stocking (and well over-stocking) every best-seller, every thriller, every piece of crap by writers like Lee Child, Tom Clancy (or rather his ghost-writers), James Patterson (or rather his ghost-writers)… crap that she had been told by the publishing industry that she should stock — none of which actually sold for us. 

I put an end to that as quickly as I could, and instead set about transforming the store into something that I could be proud of. Not “literary” fiction per se, but eclectic fiction that would interest a young audience. Lots of pop culture titles. Games. Art books with an emphasis on the creative process. Eclectic books from smaller publishers. Books on stuff like Haka Dancing that my boss would never have stocked, but which I knew would interest the students. Gaming stuff. “Geeky” stuff. The more esoteric, the better. Over the course of a couple of years, I made that place into the kind of bookstore I used to love to visit, and which has sadly gone the way of the dodo. 

Where my boss would order 20 copies of the latest unsellable thriller (18 of which would then go into returns and make more work for everyone), I rarely ordered more than one copy of anything: on the theory that this allowed me to stock a broader range of titles in less depth.

And all I got from the pencil-pushers, every year, was “Trade Book sales are down, Trade Book sales are down!”

— Like it was my fault that the book industry is killing itself. Like it was my fault that a student would discover a great book right there in our store — and then go back to their dorm and order it from Amazon.

Trade Book sales were going down everywhere. Not my problem. My only goal was in making an interesting bookstore that would draw people in, and you know what? Maybe sales were up in other areas of the store because I was drawing people in with a broader, more interesting, eclectic book selection.

They never could understand that this “Bestseller Mentality” of throwing all your resources into the Lowest Common Denominator basket has killed bookstore after bookstore after bookstore. It’s what killed Borders and it’s what’s killing B&N, because instead of bing the kind of stores that they were in their expansionist phase (when you could go into a new B&N or Borders and find all kinds of wonderful things that the local booksellers could not afford to stock), they regressed and contracted into Big Machines Pushing the Same Old Crap That Everyone Else Was Pushing. 

… which in turn opened the doors for the smaller Independent Booksellers to finally regain some ground and start Kicking Back. Which they have done.

There’s a B&N store not far away from me, but I haven’t gone there in nearly a decade, because I know that it will be the same old crap, nothing unusual, nothing but bestsellers and standards and book-lights. Not at all, not even remotely like the original Barnes & Noble I visited in New York City for the first time back in the mid-‘70s. 

Which was quite close, in a way, to the second bookstore I visited in my dreams last night. I think it had everything. I think it stocked every book that was in print from every publisher in the nation — plus imports. You could go in there and spend an afternoon just browsing, and find an armful of books that you wanted — although of course you couldn’t afford them all. Your brain could not even encompass everything that they stocked. Now that was a bookstore.

Except the one in my dream last night had books that showed the underlying Patterns, the actual design, of the Universe itself. Oh, and — a thick book of pop-up and punch-out jewelry designed by Edward Gorey. Created by him after his death, of course. That’s what Magic Bookshops do: put the impossible into your hands.

The first bookstore that I visited in my dreams last night was a very different sort of place. Its proprietor was a man in white who swept the sidewalk out in front every day, wearing a smug smile on his face and white apron tied around his waist like an old-time shopkeeper. His shop on the corner was so small that for days and days I did not go there, thinking that it could not possibly have anything of interest in stock. 

Then one day I went up to talk to him, and he ushered me into his shop, and I saw how wrong I’d been. 

The space itself was tiny; no larger than an average bathroom, and completely square. There were four wooden walls all around, with a shelf cut into each wall, and a single book sitting on each shelf. And what books they were!

I can’t tell you now, I literally can’t, because that’s what dreams do. But they were… everything you were ever looking for, everything you ever wanted to know. They were very old, with elegant pen-and-ink illustrations. Ancient maps. Near the corner of the room was a rope extending through the ceiling above. You pulled on the rope, and all four walls sank through the floorboards, while a whole other room came down from above. Four more shelves, four more books for sale. They were large and bound in tooled leather. You could pick them up off the shelves, and just by touching them you became a Better Person.

You tugged on the rope again, and another level came down from above while you stood in place. Three levels, all told. Twelve books altogether. Everything you were looking for, Everything that you needed to Know.

— Freder.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Now Accepting Pre-Orders for TAROT OF THE ZIRKUS MÄGI -- Full 78-Card Deck

Click the Image to Enlarge
I'm now accepting pre-orders for the deck, but please keep in mind that these pre-orders will not ship until all the Kickstarter backers have received their rewards -- probably late September. Thanks for understanding. 

The first edition of the deck is limited to 500 copies. Kickstarter backers cleared out approximately 150+ of those. 

Click here to order. Pre-ordering is being done through Square and PayPal, the deck won't appear in my Etsy shop until all Kickstarter and Pre-Order decks have been shipped.

For details about the deck, including every card image and lots of behind-the-scenes "extras," visit .

Thank you all for your support!


Sunday, August 31, 2014


I have so much on my mind, and there is so much going on, that I can hardly organize it into coherent thought, let alone into a credible, unified blog post. 

GAZA: This is what Religion does to people. If you take either side in the conflict, you are part of the problem. If you look at the photographs and see “demons” in the clouds of destruction, you are part of the problem. Demons didn’t do this: humans did. Both Israel and Hamas are so far in the wrong that they need God himself to come down out of the skies and say, “You two BRATS had better knock it off right now, or I am gonna give you both a spanking that you will NEVER forget.” — Although, would they heed it, if it happened? They might crawl off into their separate corners to lick their wounds, but they would still be harboring hatred for one another. I say again, This is what Religion does to people: it creates whole populations who can never forgive, never forget, and worse — never move on.

FERGUSON: This is what Capitalism does to people. Fergusen is chilling enough if you believe that it’s an isolated incident, but I don’t believe for one nanosecond that it will be an isolated incident. Police brutality is up alarmingly nationwide. Armed military “exercises” are occurring, with little publicity, all over the nation. Local police departments are being issued with Military weapons and assault machines. The one percent have actively begun arming themselves against us. Instead of doing right by the people who work for them, instead of doing right by the nation, they are digging in their heels. At the same time I’m terrified of what will happen if it does come down to armed revolution, because think about it: the only people with guns in this country are the crazy right-wing loony-tooners, the working Republicans who have been enabling the very wealthy to get away with this crap all along. If they take up their arms it will get very bloody, and the rest of us won’t stand a chance.

Meanwhile, production of the Tarot deck is in progress, and I’m more concerned than ever about taking this gamble in our fractured, fragmented Culture. You try to do good work that will make people happy, then you throw it into the cultural well and wait to hear a splash that never comes. That’s been my experience so far, at least. With the mainstream book and music publishers now so far out of the loop and so vary far out of sync with the culture — the merger of Penguin and Random House is nothing less than an apocalyptic event in the literary world, and I’m alarmed that no one has even seemed to bat an eye over it — and more and more and more artists, musicians and writers taking things back into their own hands, the public’s attention is divided in about a million different directions… and this is a problem that goes way, way deeper than just one artist, or a bunch of them, trying to make a living off of what they do well. Our attention is so divided, we are so distracted, that we cannot effectively present ourselves as a unified body of people, as a unified culture… and this is exactly what the one percenters want, it’s something that they can take advantage of to keep us in line, to allow them to hang onto their vast wealth and amass all the more.

And with all this happening, this deepening global war of The Few vs. The Many… all I really want to think about is the new season of Doctor Who. It’s my little cultural hole that I can crawl into to hide out from the rest of the world, an oasis in a world of war. The Doctor is the last true old-style hero that we have left, an Individual who stands for the values of Intelligence, compassion and respect. 

In this truly cataclysmic world, you try to find meaning where you can… and end up just as distracted as everyone else.

— Freder.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You Are What You Make

Although for much of my life I could not have put it into so many words, or for that matter could not have understood the rationale behind the feeling, I have always believed that that The Creative Life — whatever that means — comes attached with a kind of moral responsibility. So-called “creators” of irresponsible, vacuous, or degrading “art” have always outraged me all out of proportion to the value (or lack of value) in their work; to the point where I come off looking kind of kooky simply because all I could do was explain why I found a book or a film or a piece of art objectionable — not why I was so outraged by its very existence. 

Prime examples would be people George Romero, or Eli Roth, or the people behind the Saw movies. I never wasted even a minute of my life watching their movies, and still I was infuriated by their very existence,

Now I think that I understand. I’m learning, you see, that the world is made of thoughts and emotions, as much as atoms and molecules — maybe more so, because it is thought and emotion that shape the atoms and molecules.

Everything that we bring into the world, no matter how small, has consequences upon the world, and the culture that we live inside. This means nothing less than that, as a creative person, you are responsible for what you bring into the world. 

Movies are not just “movies.” Movies are real in the sense that they have an impact on the people who watch them and on the culture as a whole. Like everything else in the world, movies and books and all kinds of art give off vibrations that impact everything around them. Didn’t you feel kind of dirty while you were watching Stardust Memories or Batman Returns? Take that to the next level: a vile, inhuman and outright anti-human movie like Hostel reaches out into our culture whether we want it to or not. By the mere fact of its existence, by the energies that went into its making, it pollutes our culture and the world and turns us all down a darker path whether we are directly impacted by it or not. 

This is why I have always said and felt (not always knowing why, though usually being scoffed at by others for believing it) that someone like George Romero has an awful lot to answer for. In his case, it’s not only his own films that he is answerable for (although they are bad enough), but also the scores of imitators more or less consciously ripping him off with their legions of movies about ghouls (and let’s start using the right word for these creatures, please: a zombie is something entirely different. What Romero made movies about, in his own words, are ghouls) splashing the screen not just in blood and gore but with feelings and vibrations of supreme ugliness.

No culture can endure, for long, the ugliness that these kinds of movies bring into the world. 

It’s not “just a movie.” When you watch a movie like that, your thoughts and emotions are being directly affected, directly infected. Your entire being is being abused, and altered by that abuse.

I’m not saying that artists should only do “nice” work. But when depicting the dark side of our nature, you need to be responsible about it. In my novel See Them Dance I created a whole host of monstrous creatures and let them, for a couple of chapters, run riot. But I never created a monster without creating a competing force for nobility capable of putting them down. 

This is the purpose of Evil in art: to show that we have the capacity to rise above it. The “art” that I’m speaking of creates Evil for it’s own end: as a goal in itself.

What I am learning now is that every thought that we have — Every. Single. Thought. — comes with consequences attached, affects our reality in either beneficial or harmful ways. 

People have reacted to me with scorn when I try to point this out. I actually had one person say to me, emphasis his, “It’s only entertainment!” — As if the whole concept of someone finding entertainment or pleasure in images of other people being tortured to death was not appalling all by itself. 

Free speech doesn’t allow you to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, and it doesn’t allow to you to be irresponsible. We accept this as a fact in our physical lives — why can’t we accept it in our emotional lives, in our art? The act of making these movies brings negative power into the world, and the people who watch them as entertainment are allowing themselves to become magnifiers of that power. We are seeing the impact of it in our culture.

You are responsible for what you bring into the world: and for what you consume. Just as poison kills the body, the art of poison will kill the mind and soul. 

Maybe this is why The Addams Family have always been my favorite people: they are creepy, they are kooky, they are altogether ooky — but they bring love and family devotion into the world, not hatred and hostility and death. In the words of the transvestite “mother” in the rock musical Hair: “Be whatever you are, do whatever you want to do — just so long as you don’t hurt anybody.”

Depravity hurts, even when it’s “just” in a movie. Depictions of Depravity are the same thing as Depravity itself. It’s not a victimless crime. The whole culture is damaged. And while we can’t license or govern these people out of existence, we can do one positive thing to begin cleansing our culture right now: we can stop giving them our money, our time, our attention, and our bodies as amplifiers of the degeneracy that they are pumping into world. 

— Freder.
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