Thursday, October 31, 2013

We're still listening to the monster's story

I've probably already mentioned this but when I was around 8 or 9 years old I got interested in movie monsters. This was back in the mid to late 70s before VCRs and "On Demand" when we were limited to a few channels on TV.  If you wanted to see those old movies you had to stay up late on Friday nights to watch "Nightmare Theater" (because it took all the fun out of it to show them during the day).  The problem was that I was too afraid to stay up alone and my parents were too tired to stay up late.  But now I think those old movies are kind of fun to watch with the kids because they're not overly scary.  Unfortunately, my kids have turned into teenagers (which is even scarier!), and now my family thinks those movies are outdated and boring and lame – and I get persecuted if I want to watch them.

When I was a teenager I read some of the books that inspired those old movies and I recall being disappointed with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein because it wasn't much like the movie's story as I understood it.  So with my nostalgic fondness for those old movies I thought Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock (doesn't she have a great name for a book like this?) was interesting because she presents all the different iterations of the story and how it changed over the years.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin came from a very liberal background and was only 18 years old and pregnant with her second child by writer Percy Shelley when she got the idea for the story late one night when a bunch of literati challenged each other to come up with a horror story.  (Bram Stoker's Dracula came from that same challenge.)  Percy Shelley (which is a pretty wimpy name for a guy) was a regular cad, who had abandoned his wife and 2 children for the teenage vixen Mary (he finally married her after his first wife killed herself).  Mrs. Hitchcock explains the background of the story and the influences that shaped it: Milton's Paradise Lost, a growing knowledge of anatomy, the popular experiments using electricity to animate dead bodies, etc.  She goes on to describe the various stage productions that soon followed and how they modified the story by adding the creepy assistant and the idea of lightning bringing the creature to life. Before long politicians started using the name, and it didn't take long before "Frankenstein" had become blurred in the public consciousness: was Frankenstein the doctor or the monster?  But it was actor Boris Karloff who gave us the most enduring image in Universal's tremendously successful 1931 film (and Hollywood discovered that sequels could be very profitable).  Incidentally, Mrs. Hitchcock says that Bela Lugosi – who became a huge star after his performance in Dracula – turned down the role of the monster because it was largely a non-speaking part.  (Lugosi learned his lesson and said yes when offered the role in the 5th sequel in 1943, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.)

When I read this a few years ago I was looking for something "different," and this was perfect.  It's a very interesting book filled with photos and illustrations that discuss the many ways Frankenstein became a part of our culture.  Even today, the name is used in scientific issues such as cloning and genetically-modified  "Frankenfoods."  So, whether you're interested in literature (the book finally gained literary respect in the 1970s and 80s), modern culture, or just the monster himself, it's pretty entertaining. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

If you need anything, just scream

When the school day was done – back when I was a kid, of course – I was outta there as fast as possible.  It wasn't so much that I didn't like school but more that I didn't like being at school after hours.  Once the hallways and playgrounds emptied and the noisy chatter died away, I found the whole place to be downright creepy – in a 'not good' sort of way.  But I do have some 'good creepy' memories of my elementary school.  I remember we always had a pre-Halloween carnival with games and costumes and food (it was probably a PTA fundraiser and the only time you'd have found me there after hours).  I also remember my cool 6th grade teacher, Mr. Spjute, absolutely loved Disney's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and we must have watched it a dozen times that year.  I also remember, as a much younger kid, reading the Georgie books about the shy little ghost who creaked the stairs and squeaked the front door so Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker knew it was time to go to bed.  But if your kids are too old for Georgie maybe I can offer some other recommendations (all of which I received from Amazon Vine).

The R. L. Stine books came after my time but I've seen some of the "Goosebumps" shows and decided to give The Creatures from Beyond Beyond a try.  It's about twins Randi and Tyler who find their summer vacation home to be boring – except for an off-limits closet and a life-like doll that grows and running for their lives from aliens!  The writing was worse than I expected and the plot was thin and the dialog cheesy, so maybe I didn't miss much.  But the author seems to have lots of fans and it was rather creepy.

A much better choice turned out to be Home Sweet Horror (Scary Tales) by James Preller.  The first in this new series features a retelling of the "Bloody Mary" story.  Liam Finn moves to a new town with his sister and dad after his mother's death. The old house they buy needs of a lot of repairs but no repairman in town is willing to come out. In fact, the only advice they get is that the house is evil. And before long, the house itself seems to be telling them to 'get out.'  It's written in a way to keep ratcheting up the scariness with each short chapter, and can be read aloud to great effect. The stark black and white illustrations help to enhance the atmosphere.  I'm a little concerned that the online recommendations include 2nd graders – I think kids that young might easily end up with nightmares – but the older end of the range would certainly enjoy it.  (I did.)

And I've already mentioned the first book in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series by Charles Gilman, but I've since received the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th books, and I think they're getting better as the series progresses.  In #2: The Slither Sisters, Robert Arthur runs for student body president to block Sarah Price, one of the popular girls, from winning because he knows what she really is.  And in #3: Teacher's Pest, the school has an insect problem.  But it's not just Howard Mergler who's "bugging" Robert – his best friend Glenn is, too.  And in #4: Substitute Creature, Robert and his friends get stuck in the school overnight (yeah, that would have been my nightmare) with the substitute librarian when a "nor'easter" covers Dunwich in several feet of snow.  Yes, kids will be attracted by the changing 3–D covers, but the story is actually pretty good.

So, have a Happy Halloween and find something fun to read with the kids (or by yourself). 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Something under the bed is drooling

Quite simply, a bogle is a monster.  There are many different kinds, but they generally live in dark places like drain pipes, fireplaces, caves, and cellars.  I had one under my bed when I was a kid, and although I was never harmed they generally eat children.  But Birdie McAdam is an apprentice to a bogler, which is someone who gets rid of bogles.  She's only 10 years old and has the most beautiful singing voice.  All she has to do is stand in a circle of salt and sing to lure the bogle out.  She keeps watch in a small mirror for Mr. Bunce to give her the signal to move - quickly! - then he kills the bogle.  Yes, it's dangerous work, but at least it's honest, and a whole lot better than mudlarking.

I hope the author of How to Catch a Bogle (which I received from Amazon Vine) will forgive me but I thought this book was simply trying to ride Harry Potter's coattails and jump ahead of Ms. Rowling's anticipated 'Care of Magical Creatures' book.  "Bogle" sounds a little like "boggart" and it even mentioned "grindylows" early on, and Birdie is - of course - an orphan.  But despite those similarities, it's actually a very well-written and exciting story with shades of Charles Dickens' London, where children are exploited and the poor have few options.  Birdie and Mr. Bunce are engaging characters, and with each job the reader is drawn in and the suspense increases.  There are villains, too, and they're pretty mean and nasty, but there's just enough heroes to offset them.  Catherine Jinks writes with the appropriate accents and uses a lot of old slang from the Victorian (or is it 'Dickensian?') era which I found fairly confusing until I realized there's a glossary at the end of the book.  And the songs Birdie sings - while rather morbid - had such an air of authenticity I had to wonder if the author made them up or not as I rushed and neglected other things to finish this book.

So maybe there's a bit of Harry Potter with an Oliver Twist in the story, but it's a story well worth reading (especially if you've got kids to read it to).  I'm looking forward to the next one.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I'll go where you want me to go

We just got a second set of missionaries in our ward – sister missionaries.  We had them over for dinner last week and they shared this with us.  It's from the special broadcast fireside earlier this year.  It's too good not to share again.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Watch me pull a rabbit...

I'm not sure why but there were certain names that loomed large when I was a kid. Unfortunately, many of them were "bad guys" like the Red Baron, Billy the Kid, or Jesse James. It wasn't that I admired any of them (remember the episode of "The Brady Bunch" where Bobby has an unhealthy obsession with Jesse James?), but there was a strange fascination associated with such notorious characters. But I'm somewhat mystified as to why one particular name loomed equally large: Harry Houdini. I was never very interested in magic or magicians and yet my mind always associated him as "legendary" in a similar way. (On further reflection, I think my friend Aaron talked about him a lot.)

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman details his humble beginnings as Ehrich Weiss, the son of a rabbi, to his life as an international celebrity. He is best remembered as a famous escape artist (and his name is still associated with getting out of a tight situation), but even as a child he displayed an unusual talent for magic and picking locks. Early on he struggled to make a living with magic, however, and found a more receptive audience for tricks like mind-reading and ‘speaking with the dead’ in a traveling show. The authors tell how he'd visit local bars and cemeteries when he first entered a new town and gather information about people who might have recently died – information which he could use in his show that evening. Later in life he earnestly regretted that, and he worked to expose such charlatans.

Spiritualism was very popular at the time and enjoyed prominent supporters like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle and Houdini were actually quite good friends, and Doyle (among MANY others) actually believed Houdini had extraordinary or special powers. Houdini insisted that it was only sleight-of-hand, but Doyle thought Houdini was simply unaware of the true source of his power. Houdini's initial interest in Spiritualism was sincere because he desperately wanted to contact his deceased mother, but when he concluded it was all fake he made it a personal crusade to expose the Spiritualists, and some of his exploits were very funny. Apparently people visiting a spirit medium would usually sit in the dark holding hands while the spirits would communicate through a small trumpet (kind of like what a cheerleader might use, I think). Houdini would sneakily smear "lampblack" (which sounds like black shoe polish) on the mouthpiece of the trumpet, so that when they turned the lights back on the medium would have a black circle around his mouth. You can see why that might make the Spiritualists angry, and not only did it ruin his friendship with Sir Arthur but the authors speculate the Spiritualists had a hand in his death.

But Houdini was more than just a magician. He was an early devotee of flying, becoming the first person to achieve sustained flight in Australia, and he acted in motion pictures. The authors also offer evidence that Houdini may have been a spy for the American government while traveling in Europe. I first heard of this book in a radio interview with the author several years ago, although the possible spying activities weren't as prominent in the book as the interview might suggest. This claim has turned out to be rather controversial for some people, but to me it sounded plausible enough since I knew so little about him to begin with. But this has become one of those "favorite books” that I still think about now and then – especially when I see signs around my neighborhood for psychics and fortune tellers. (And just for the record: I do not think the Red Baron was a "bad guy" – he was actually a very decent guy who was just on the side of the enemy. Someday I’ll review the biography I read about him.)