Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Next Big Thing


A whole new concept designed to take Tarot to the next level.
Inspired by the classic Minchiatte decks, but journeying considerably further,
THE MIDWAY ARCANA is both a supplement and an expansion for
The Tarot of the Zirkus Mägi.


It's all here in THE MIDWAY ARCANA!
Coming in two versions: the simply ginormous


containing all Major, Minor and Midway Arcana cards
-- and as a stand-alone deck so that owners of the existing ROADSHOW
edition can turn the deck they already have into a "Baraboo."

--> WATCH THIS PAGE!!! <--

...  to see the AMAZING cards unveiled as they are created -- and prepare yourself for


The Zirkus Mägi and all original content ™and © 2015 Duck Soup Productions, all rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What's In The Cards? You. You Are.

Since I began publishing THE PLAYROOM ORACLES — The Golli Oracle, The Marvelous Oracle of Oz, The Brownies: Their Oracle and The Arthur Rackham Oracle — folks have been asking directly and indirectly for some kind of companion text that clearly defines the card meanings. I am against this, not just because writing that kind of text is a tedious and thankless job, but because it deprives the reader of participating actively in the oracle as an equal partner.

People are always asking writers “What did you mean by that?” Usually, the answer is “I meant what I typed and I typed what I meant” — but sometimes writers, just as any other kind of artist, do use symbols and metaphors. I always refuse to answer these questions, not out of any mysterious motive, but because I want the readers to find the meaning for themselves.

A writer can produce a novel and that’s all well and good — but a novel is just another “thing” until a reader invests their own experience and creativity to bring it to life in their imagination. In a very real sense, a novel isn’t “completed” until read, a painting isn’t finished until it is observed, and an oracle deck isn’t functional until it is used. The reader or observer is a collaborator in the creative experience. Naturally, a well-read, substantive person will bring more to the experience than a shallow person who has never seen the inside of a museum or read a book for pleasure. It is your responsibility as a living being to expand and deepen your knowledge and experience — and Tarot is here to help you with that.

It’s true that symbols (such as letters, numbers, and the triangular symbols used to represent the four elements of earth, air, fire and water) do have specific meanings that you can look up in a book. Metaphors are another thing entirely, and when the two combine or collide (as they often do in Tarot), they are meant to connect with that part of your unconscious self that still has access to the great unknown, to that which our conscious minds cannot normally perceive.

So you can learn “canned” meanings out of a book, but still be hopeless as a reader, because you will miss what the cards are really trying to tell you — YOU, as an INDIVIDUAL, having drawn a combination of cards (symbols and metaphors) bearing upon your specific circumstance. 

When there are symbols present, you need to learn about those symbols in the same way and for the same reason that you need to learn the alphabet before you can hope to read a sentence, let alone a book. But when there are metaphors present, you need to be able to connect with your instinct and with the collective unconscious. Relying on “canned” meanings deprives you of your ability to become an active, creative participant in any deck, in the same way that Cliff’s notes tell you what to think and feel about a novel when you are too lazy to read it for yourself.

This is why I don’t provide “official meanings” for my oracle decks, or set boundaries around the card meanings by defining them beyond what is printed on the cards themselves. To do so would be to circumscribe the experience. I’m looking for collaborators, not minions. 

— Freder

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Vampire and the Third-Assistant Director

My Week With Marilyn may be the Guy Equivalent of a Chick Flick: if we accept the concept that this kind of movie is meant to cause its target audience to wallow in mushy feelings, while the opposite sex looks on in bewilderment and contempt. Truthfully, about the only enjoyment I can imagine a woman getting from this picture lies — perhaps — in watching men make fools of themselves.

Which doesn’t mean that this isn’t a beautiful movie — it is: beautiful to look at, with beautiful performances all up and down. Whether it’s true or not is anyone’s guess… but it has the ring of truth, even if some specific scenes or details are one hundred percent made up.

At the ground-floor level it details the making of The Prince and The Showgirl, a lighter-than-air bit of sex-fantasy fluff directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, and starring him opposite Marilyn Monroe. The sad fact of The Prince and The Showgirl is expressed in one line of dialogue here: Olivier was a Great Actor who desperately wanted to be a Film Star, while Monroe was a Film Star who desperately wanted to be a Great Actor — and The Prince and The Showgirl didn’t give either one of them what they wanted.

Off-screen, Marilyn behaved like her usual difficult self, a fish out of water who was not helped by any of the people she surrounded herself with, least of all Paula Strasberg (played wonderfully here by Zoe Wanamaker). Meanwhile, a young man named Colin (Freddie Redmayne), the unsuccessful black sheep in his well-to-do family, has insinuated himself into a job as Third Assistant Director (really a Go-pher) in Olivier’s company… and Marilyn takes a shine to him. 

With this development evident to everyone, both Olivier and Monroe begin using the young man to get what they want. Olivier simply wants Monroe to show up on time and say her lines, while the thing Monroe wants is simply to be adored. 

Her marriage to Arthur Miller is just a few weeks old and already beginning to fall apart. Her nervous disposition (made worse by booze, pills and fawning sycophants) causes all manner of difficulty on the set … and Olivier makes no effort whatever to conceal his irritation and contempt, which makes matters still worse. 

Thus Colin, the young “Third-Assistant Director,” is reeled deeper and deeper into Monroe’s web. He has a genuinely sympathetic nature that is just exactly what Monroe needs to feed upon, and exactly what opens him up to her attack. Although he has the brash audacity to have insinuated himself into his position, when it comes to women he’s a stark novice, literally naked and defenseless. 

I use the metaphors advisedly, because Marilyn does come off as more than a little bit of a monster here. Although really desperately and genuinely Needy, she is well aware of her effect on others and more than willing to use every seductive tool in her kit to get what she wants. If this isn’t the textbook definition of a Vampire, I don’t know what is.

Michelle Williams is flat-out astonishing as Monroe, more channeling than playing her, with the result that although we can see how Marilyn is manipulating the events and everyone around her, we can’t help but acknowledge that we, too, would be willingly manipulated by her if we only had the opportunity. Still, she doesn’t steal the show, in part because there’s so much going on, and so many agendas in play. Kenneth Branagh looks almost nothing like Olivier, still he evokes Olivier except when trying to show Olivier acting: it seems only Olivier himself could do that. 

It all ends exactly the way you expect it to end, and the way that you know it will end. There’s a heavy sense of nostalgia to the picture, cut by the low cunning of the players, and by the young man’s philosophical nature: blaming no one but himself, and not regretting anything, even for an instant, even as love will be a little spoiled for him now, forever after.

— Frede.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Halloween Redux

Photo by Bruce Canwell.

And so another Halloween accomplished.

It's always the high point of my year, and it always leaves me feeling sad on the day — perhaps because it is the highlight of my year, and suddenly it’s All Over. 

In some (but not all) Pagan traditions, November first is actually New Year’s Day; Halloween is the last day of the year. This makes eminent sense to me, as Halloween definitely represents a Closing Down, a Locking Up, Endings, The Past. I like the notion that the New Year begins with a full season of Winter ahead: we thus begin an actual New Cycle in Full Lockdown Mode, huddle through the bleak months, and by April we know that the worst of the year is fully behind us. By comparison, having New Year’s Day in January seems arbitrary to me: nothing is new and no cycle is beginning in that desperate month.

As is becoming my Halloween Tradition, I donned Full Costume and proceeded to haunt Burleigh Street. If Halloween happens anywhere else in Waterville, I don’t know about it — but on Burleigh Street they set up roadblocks at both ends and allow families free range to Trick and Treat. It’s a safe place, and a fun place because so many families come from all over town. For a couple of hours, I get to live vicariously and feel like I’m five years old again. I don’t hand out candy, and I don’t go up to the houses. I consider it my job to act much as a Theme Park character and provide a little Extra Entertainment for folks. 

This year I went as an Angel of Death, with folding wings that gave me a black wingspan of twelve or thirteen feet. My favorite bit is to move up right behind someone who is engrossed in a conversation or in taking pictures with their phone, and just stand there silently until they notice me. I usually get a good jump-scare out of them, without doing anything. 

I find that little girls of a certain age are so courageous; they aren’t scared of anything and they take pride in being able to walk right up to “the monster” and say hi. (Any parents of little girls out there ought to be really alarmed by this — there are a lot of Real Monsters out there who aren’t anywhere near as benign as me). On the other hand there’s a certain breed of Silly Girl in their late teens who actually scream and run — them I chase (up to a point). Little boys are more fearful, while in their teens they are more likely to give you a high five. 

Most adults get with the spirit of the thing (even after a jump-scare), but every year I run into a handful of them who just walk past me with dark, evil frowns on their faces. I figure they must be Republicans.

In four years of doing this (once I got rained out), I have never shown my face nor repeated a costume: but this time, someone actually recognized me from last year. “Are you the same guy who —” I gave a bow. When someone actually remembers your costume from the year before, that’s the best compliment they can give you. 


On the other hand, this year’s crop of Halloweenish Movies was largely dismaying. I blame myself for having done too well tracking down all the good stuff in the past — now it seems most of what’s available to me (with a couple of notable exceptions) are the dregs.

For the first time I sampled some Japanese Horror — or rather, American Remakes of Japanese horror. The Grudge and The Ring both left me cold, although the former was particularly unwatchable thanks to the presence of the egregious Sarah Michelle Gellar in the lead role. I find her almost physically painful to watch, and tuned out after ten minutes. On the other hand The Ring is slick enough that I was able to sit through it all, even though it seemed to make less and less sense (and consequently got less and less frightening) as it went along. I'm as willing to suspend disbelief as anyone, but I do require at least a semblance of Internal Logic. Sadly, nothing in The Ring adds up. By the time it was over, I just felt cheated and frustrated and angry… so much so that I felt compelled to track down the original Japanese version.

What a difference! — and the differences between the two versions are far more striking and profound than the similarities. “Changes for cultural reasons” doesn't begin to cover it, although the Japanese appear to have a cultural advantage in the sense that psychic abilities and phenomenon are just Accepted As Fact, requiring no explanation. The backstory is profoundly altered between the two versions, as are the main characters themselves — I found the Japanese characters to be deeper and more sympathetic. Especially disgusting to me is a scene in the American version in which Naomi Watts more or less wantonly and deliberately kills a horse, thinking nothing of it, concerned only for herself; no such scene exists in the Japanese version. I give Ringu high marks… the American Ring is best avoided.

The most unfortunate thing about A Series of Unfortunate Events is Jim Carrey. Somebody for crying out loud put a leash and muzzle on that guy! I think of it as insecurity on his part that he us unable to just play a single scene in character without dropping out for one inane ad-lib after another. He is more than enough actor to play Count Olaf straight, and the movie would be much better if he did. Meryl Streep slices the ham pretty thick here as well. It’s too bad, because most everything else about the picture is creditable, barring only a last minute Hollywood-Ending leap away from the source material.

Way up high in the “Oh My God Calgon Take Me Away” category is Burnt Offerings, directed by Dan Curtis from a ‘70s “thriller” so trivial that it’s no longer remembered by anyone. Nothing happens for the first nine hours of this picture: then Bette Davis starts to roll around in bed and scream, and I must admit that's a little scary, though not for the reasons Curtis intended. She dies when a smirking hearse driver pushes a coffin into the camera lens. Go figure. Then a swimming pool tries to eat a young boy. That's what I said. He is saved by Karen Black, who made a career by looking slightly cross-eyed all the time. Meanwhile, Oliver Reed sweats a lot and grunts and groans and flops about on the ground. Then he goes up to the top floor of the house where Karen Black has put on a bunch of Old Lady make-up. This scares him so bad that he jumps out the window. His body smashes head-first through the windshield of the family car where his son just happens to be sitting. Son is appropriately freaked out by all the stage blood, and goes running into the yard, where the house chimney falls on him. He hears and sees it coming and has plenty of time to get out of the way, but he stands there like a typical '70s movie character and lets the damn thing fall on him. Having taken pictures of Bette Davis and Oliver Reed and the boy and neatly installed them next to a few dozen other photos, the house is magically restored to its former glory. Oh, the humanity!

The best thing that I can say about Robert Wise’s Audrey Rose is that it’s a heckova lot better than Burnt Offerings. Wise is a notably more assured and experienced director than Curtis, but his movie is adapted from an equally inconsequential ’70s book that wasn’t very good in its day and never stood the test of time. Marsha Mason adds some weight to the thing with her performance, while Anthony Hopkins just looks as if he wants to be somewhere else. What starts as a spooky tale of reincarnation turns suddenly into a courtroom drama in the third act. Here it takes on the aspect of a made-for-tv movie, lumbered with a host of TV actors, especially including Magnum, P.I.’s John Hillerman, Lou Grant’s Robert Walden, and St. Elsewhere’s Norman Lloyd, the latter of whom plays a psychologist who single-handedly brings the whole story to a tragic end with his incompetence and bad decisions. Well — at least with Audrey Rose dead, we don’t have to watch any more of her horrible acting.

When MAD magazine did their parody of Roman Polanski’s most famous movie, they called it “Rose-Mia’s Boo-Boo.” Once again we have a novel best described as a piece of tripe being adapted for the screen — but Polanski makes the damn thing work. Although its depiction of witches is at best soft-headed and at worst a perpetuation of Salem hysteria, it effectively capitalizes on the notion that those Perfectly Nice Neighbors of yours may be Up to No Good, and is genuinely freaky for much of its runtime — until it leaps over the top in the final scene. I do love the heavy 1968 vibe and atmosphere, reminding me of a world I grew up in that has gone the way of the Dodo. Meanwhile, Ruth Gordon made a whole second career out of playing this part over and over again for the rest of her life.

Better still was The Woman in Black — a completely different animal from the stage play bearing the same name, although both are based on a novel by Susan Hill (a writer Worth Reading, which makes her unique among the novelists mentioned here). Both adaptations are good, creepy fun, both rely (and perhaps over-rely) on jump-scares, both tell approximately the same story — but best thing about both of them is to have seen them both, if that makes any sense. They accomplish their minimal goals in very different ways; taking them as closely together as you can will give you a textbook lesson in the differences between film and stage technique. 

Meanwhile, although she is advancing in age just like the rest of us, Janet McTeer is still a Goddess.

From Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors through Blacula, from Corpse Bride to Paranorman, from Murders in the Zoo to The Old Dark House, the better pictures that I watched this Halloween Season proved over and over again that Horror and Comedy walk hand in hand. This leads me to the best and smartest Halloween Movie that I watched all season: last year's vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. To say much about the movie would spoil it. Just know that it’s Spinal Tap for the vampire set, written, shot and performed by a canny gang of New Zealand comedians. I watched it early in the season, and now I wish that I’d saved it, so that I could have ended on this extremely high note. If I could have had three other pictures during the month that were this good, I’d have been a happy camper indeed. But it just goes to show — how hard it is to make movies at all, and how much harder it is to make good ones. 

Well, now. This post has gone on an awfully long time. I’ll end it with the scariest observation of all: They are already putting up Christmas Stuff in the damn stores. 

Sigh. Is next Halloween really twelve months away?

— Frede

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Spot The Looney

The best thing I’ve seen so far during this Halloween season of creepy movies (other than a few really cracking episodes from the new season of Doctor Who)  is last year’s Stonehearst Asylum. It teeters on the edge of silly, which only makes it better as far as I’m concerned: walking fine lines like that is something that I can respect. 

In this more-or-less straightforward “lunatics take over the asylum” story, Ben Kingsley plays the self-elected Master of Stonehearst in the aftermath of an inmate revolt that leaves the real staff of the institution (led the great Michael Caine) chained up in the basement. The can of worms gets opened in a big way when a young Doctor (Jim Sturgess) arrives to begin a proposed internship, and promptly develops an attachment to one of the inmates (Kate Becksindale). 

Of course there’s a twist, and it’s not the twist that occurred to me early on. The question of what decides sanity or insanity is addressed in a genuinely creepy and frightening atmosphere, and for a moment they almost allow you to believe that it’s not going to end well. Perhaps it would have gotten better reviews from the critics if it hadn’t ended well, but I’ve given up hoping for anything outside of the box to come from modern Hollywood. Within the confines of what Hollywood does and how it works today, Stonehearst Asylum is a strong entry for anyone’s Halloween viewing.

At long, long last I have finished watching Supernatural’s fourth season. It took me two years to get through it. I’ve written about it elsewhere on the site, but it bears repeating that the show is one of the great tragedies of cult TV. Season four proves with several really strong one-off stories that the show still had some considerable juice left in it… but by calling in God and the Angels and The Devil and The Apocalypse, creator Eric Kripke made the same mistake that Chris Carter made with The X-Files, and essentially forced the show off the rails before its time. Yes, I know that it’s still on the air and in its eleventh season, but simply reading the season synopses at Wikipedia is enough to prove to me that its writers are mining the Lunatic Fringe. Maybe there are some bible-thumpers out there in CW land who still like the thing. For me — this and The X-Files will always be notable for blown potential: they both started strong, sustained it for three seasons each and then immolated themselves on the bonfire of continuity.

— Freder

Friday, October 16, 2015

Because I Love To Count Things

Something like going along towards very nearly forty years ago, it was my great pleasure and honor to attend a showing of Edward Gorey’s original Broadway production of the Hamilton Deane / John Balderston stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Gorey was then at the height of his career, while the production made stars out of Frank Langella, and his replacement Raul Julia. 

When I saw it, Langella was about midway through his run as the Count. At six feet four inches tall, he was a commanding presence upon the stage, and he gave a performance that was expertly balanced between straight and — not comedy, but a kind of knowing: a way of saying “Yes, this is silly but I embrace it wholeheartedly.” 

This was echoed by the entire cast. When a production is this visually stylized, made to look exactly as if you have stepped into one of Mr. Gorey’s macabre books, it’s unwise to play it exactly straight. What they needed to do, and what they did brilliantly, was to play it straighter than straight. The closest thing I can think of to the style they achieved is the old Batman TV series from the mid-1960s. Everyone from Mina and Jonathan to Renfield and Van Helsing to Count Dracula himself played their parts with absolute conviction, but in an archaic style reminiscent of what we think of as the Victorian theater. A good deal of authentic Victorian stage magic went into the production as well: in the most effective example of this, Dracula turned into a bat right before our eyes and then flew out the window.

It was a masterful production and a wonderful experience for a young man who loved this sort of thing long before words like “Goth” were coined. I gave it a standing ovation. It doesn’t matter that I was only one standing. The actress who played Mina noticed this and threw me a smile. 

In 1930, a different Broadway production of the same play starred Bela Lugosi. With their deep future of monsters then only a gleam in Carl Laemmle Jr.’s eye, Universal Pictures bought the rights and made a famous film version starring Lugosi. Just over forty years later, history repeated itself: with a hit production of Dracula on Broadway, Universal again acquired the rights and again made a quick film version starring the Broadway lead — except that the results this time were not nearly so memorable.

The movie — which I watched again last week for only the second time since its release — is a misbegotten mess, helmed by a director (John Badham) who seemingly couldn’t make up his mind what kind of a picture he wanted to make; in any case no one has ever accused Badham of possessing the kind of lightness of touch that this version of Dracula cried out for.

Of course the first thing that got the heave-ho was Edward Gorey. One sees references to Gorey in the final picture, but overall the visual look of the picture seems the result of a split personality: too bland in the “normal” scenes, and too theatrical where Carfax Abbey and the Asylum are concerned. Gorey was never less than tasteful; here, especially in Carfax Abbey, the design is vulgar.

Langella plays the Count much the same as he did on Broadway: but his imposing physical presence is lost onscreen with the result that this Dracula is more pretty-boy than menace. And because nearly everyone else is playing their roles in a conventional movie-actor style, Langella appears to be the only person in the room who gets the joke. By the end of the picture, stuck between a rock and a hard place, even Langella is forced to play a bland old growling monster. 

Sir Laurence Olivier suffers similarly. He comes close to achieving a screen equivalent of the acting style that was so successful on Broadway, only to be thrown into action scenes he was so unfit for that an obvious stunt double was used. Until then, his performance is balanced on the head of a pin between comedy and drama. He may only have been doing it for the money, but at least he gave the producers their money’s worth.

The ultimate disappointment lies in Badham’s decision to include several sequences of full-on 1979-style horror and violence — things that were never in the play in any form. Somebody said somewhere that this is Dracula and so we must affright. The movie already had a split personality: at this point it topples well over the line into the area of not even knowing what kind of audience it aims to please. Lucy turns into a vampire with full fright make-up and blood on her lips, and is gruesomely staked by her own father. The body of an infant, cast aside by her in haste, is seen in close-up. Dracula all but twists off Renfield’s head. At the end of the picture, he receives a hook in the back and is hauled up into the sun where he roasts in vivid detail. 

“Why so serious?” Heath Ledger’s Joker might ask. This Dracula was, at most, intended to be a drawing-room thriller, not a Grand Guignol nor a Hammer movie. 

And yet the movie is not at its worst until it tries to portray Dracula’s seduction of his victims. This was something that was done brilliantly on the stage, where it was just two actors and some careful choreography. Here, Badham launches into an oh-my-god special effects scene with blood-red backlighting and filter work and John Williams hamming up the music score. This is where the picture actually becomes painful to watch. 

Langella deserved better. We, the audience, deserved better. The Count deserved better. This is a Dracula that is best forgotten — excepting only for reminding us of the brilliant stage production that spawned it.

— Frede.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Do Do That Voodoo

As if there was any doubt, this is a sign that superstition still, in our technobabbly age, holds more sway over Humanity than Humanity cares to admit. It's the latest addition to my product line, a double-or-triple-purpose tarot reading mat / table-altar mat / talking board mat that I made simply because I wanted one for myself: something stylish that looks old and looks like it's engraved wood although it is neither.

When I posted it on Facebook,  the reactions that I got were amusing and surprising to say the least. Here's a thought: dire warnings of the evil-ness of Talking Boards as objects would be more effective if they were made with proper grammar and punctuation. But even a person that I know in real life and respect as being an otherwise sensible woman expressed dismay over this design. Why? As another friend, SF author Sharon Lee, pointed out, talking boards and talking board mats are just objects -- and objects are neither intrinsically good or evil. It's what people use them for that decides their merit. This particular one is designed to have many uses -- it can even be used as a door mat! 

It's not the last one I'm going to design, either. I like Talking Boards as Design Objects. I've never used one myself with any degree of "success"-- I don't believe and I don't disbelieve, I just think that a lot of them are great art that looks great on your wall. 

A modern "scientific" study suggests that people move the planchette unconsciously -- although how they can do this blindfolded seems to be another question. 

But how about this -- has anyone ever tried an old-fashioned Talking Board with Autistic children? Tecno-types have devised fancy computer programs to use with children who have problems communicating -- these are essentially high-tech talking boards that cost bazillions of dollars to develop and use. Old-fashioned Talking boards are at least as visually interesting as a computer program, a heckova lot cheaper, and their whole design and purpose in life is to aid communication.

What's so scary about that?

You can find mine in the "Tarot Accessories" section of The Duck Soup Emporium.

-- Frede.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Best-Kept Secrets in Comic-dom

Hot on the heels of the new PDF eBook edition of Persephone's Torch (see it over there --> in the sidebar?), here come the even groovier PDF eBook editions of my graphic novels Quirk and Tinsel*Town: four volumes in all, each with 58 - 61 pages of full color comics at a price that you can't afford to ignore: just $1.99 each! -- You'd pay more for a pound of butter or a loaf of bread! In fact, these PDF eBooks are such a bargain that you should really be pressing the "Add to Bag" button right now.

Just click on the covers above, and you will be taken to each series' mini-site, where you can learn all about them, read some online comics and choose between paperback or eBook editions. You can order right from the sidebar on the mini-sites -- or else click on "The Emporium" right here to see the whole line of everything that I've currently got out there for your (hopeful) edification and amusement.

These comics are near and dear to my heart. Check them out -- and thank you!

-- Frede.

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