Read/watchlist: non compos mentis

So over the course of the last week or so, I’ve watched:

Mary Reilly – 1996 – film starring John Malkovitch as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Julia Roberts as his housemaid. Also Glenn Close is in it. There are some movies which, it turns out, are perfect for watching in a feverish drowse, and this is one of them. It might even be pretty good whilst sober, IDK. I also read the book, which was improved on by the adaptation.

Con Air – 1997 – a film not directed by Michael Bay, which suffers from it. (I wasn’t quite out of my mind enough to watch this all the way through, but Nicholas Cage’s fake southern accent was kind of hilarious.)

Mission: Impossible (the one with the actress who got horribly miscast as Jessica in the new Dune movie), whichever that is, it’s pretty bad. There were motorcycles in it, I believe.

Top Gun: Maverick (again)

– Some episode of Xena: Warrior Princess (did this show just get completely memoryholed? Does no one remember that there was a Strong Female Character TM who was extremely popular and OP? It seems like more people debating the First Strong Female Lead Character Ever TM should be a bit more respectful.) I mean, it’s….completely cheesy and without lasting value, but! this show is absolutely amazing. When you’re also too lightheaded to drive.


And read:

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik wrote a pretty great fantasy fiction, mostly by not allowing the romance tropes to overtake the intrigue and action. But leaning harder into the pure, high fantasy-epic tropes would have been nice regardless.

– Tales from the White Hart – Arthur C. Clarke chronicles the yarns of fictional raconteur Harry Purvis at the eponymous London pub, in an adorably ’50s cozy-scifi way.

– The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas. Hell, it turns out, is finding that your premier paperback copy is actually abridged and Project Gutenberg insists on not providing a better alternative. Like Dracula, it would be kind of awesome to see an actual adaptation of this book….because I don’t think it’s ever actually been done.

Movie (re)Review – Best of the Badmen (1951)

Best of the Badmen was released in 1951, is a Western, and stars Robert Ryan, Claire Trevor, and Walter Brennan, in case you needed to know any of that.


This movie was indecisive.

It’s got good filming/staging/cinematography. (Look, I am easy to please. If the colors are pretty and there are lots of them, I am happy.) It’s got good fight choreography (Robert Ryan was a collegiate boxer and knew how to throw a punch). It’s got some pretty top-notch actors–Walter Brennan in particular underplays his usual humorous old-timer role with an almost villainous edge, to interesting effect. On the other hand, there are times when the actors–especially Robert Ryan–nail their parts effortlessly, and then there are times when they don’t. If they’d all gone full-throttle, all the time, it might have smoothed over the deficiencies of the script and made it better overall.

Anyhow, it’s also got an intriguing concept for a plot: post the Civil War, the man (Jeff Clanton, Robert Ryan) who brings in Quantrill’s Raiders (you know–Jesse James and the like) peacefully, is double-crossed or outfoxed or whatever, by the evil carpetbagger-slash-Pinkerton, Fowler. Fowler wants the rewards on the Jameses and Youngers; when Clanton refuses to hand them over, has him found guilty of murder in a kangaroo court and sentenced to hang. However, after Mrs. Fowler (Claire Trevor) breaks him out of jail and he hooks up with the outlaws, the once peaceable Clanton is hell-bent for revenge on Fowler. (Only Fowler–he doesn’t care about the money.) Also, Mrs. Fowler has also taken refuge in the outlaw town–incognito–and hooks up with Clanton. Dum-de-dum, something something outlaw raid, oh, and maintain your humanity and let’s escape to Mexico but not until I. Get. Fowler.

So you can see there is much that could be of interest there. However, it’s got a script that doesn’t quite pull together as well as it should, and can’t decide whether it is going to be dumb but competent and occasionally witty, or dumb but moralizing and dramatic. It settles on dramatic….and dumb.

Pros: The characters are well-sketched. Walter Brennan, playing an antiheroic twist on his usual role, is quite good. Even the outlaws, who usually would be consigned to a surly bunch in the background, are fairly distinctive and have a certain amount of personality. Claire Trevor (rather zaftig and looking glam in period costume) does fine in an ambiguous but also slightly underwritten role. Jack Beutel, as the sidekick, is good at being A Good Kid.–which, if that name sounds vaguely familiar, yes indeed he was Billy the Kid in the 1943 horrorshow The Outlaw. He’s wayyyyy better in this movie. [This is not difficult.]

Cons: The script is a lot stupider than it needs to be and there is the distinct impression at points that the actors knew it, too. Oh, and the ending is abrupt, moralistic, and pretty darned unsatisfying. Other than that, it’s a good little movie.

Rated: Oh, and Robert Ryan has a shirtless scene.

Poetry Corner: Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master

My Lord recalls Ferrara?  How walls 
rise out of water yet appear to recede identically
into it, as if built in both directions: soaring and sinking...
Such mirroring was my first dismay--
my next, having crossed the moat, was making
out that, for all its grandeur, the great
pile, observed close to, is close to a ruin!
 (Even My Lord's most unstinting dowry
may not restore this wasted precincts to what
their deteriorating state demands.)
Queasy it made me,  first down there
at swans in the moat apparently
feeding on their own doubled image, then up
at the citadel, high--or so deep,
and everywhere those carved effigies of 
men and women, monsters among them
crowding the ramparts and seeming at home
in the dingy water that somehow
held them up as if for our surveillance--ours?
anyone's who looked!  All that pretension
of marble display, the whole improbable
menagerie with but one purpose: having to be seen.
Such was the matter of Ferrara, and such the manner,
when at last we met, of the Duke in greeting
My Lordship's Envoy: in fallen stone!
Several hours were to elapse, in the keeping 
of his lackeys, before the Envoy of My Lord the Count 
of Tyrol might see or even be seen to by His Grace 
the Duke of Ferrara, though from such neglect 
no deliberate slight need be inferred: 
now that I have had an opportunity 
--have had, indeed, the obligation-- 
to fix on His Grace that perlustration 
or power of scrutiny for which 
(I believe) My Lord holds his Envoy's service 
in some favor still, I see that the Duke, 
by his own lights or perhaps, more properly 
said, by his own tenebrosity, 
could offer some excuse for such cunctation... 
Appraising a set of cameos 
just brought from Cairo by a Jew in his trust, 
His Grace had been rapt in connoisseurship, 
that study which alone can distract him 
from his wonted courtesy; he was 
affability itself, once his mind 
could be deflected from mere objects.  

At last I presented (with those documents 
which in some detail  describe and define 
the duties of both signators) the portrait 
of your daughter the Countess, observing the while 
his countenance.  No fault was found with our contract, of which 
each article had been so correctly framed 
 (if I may say so)  to ascertain 
a pre-nuptial alliance which must persuade 
and please the most punctilious (and impecunious) 
of future husbands.  Principally, or (if I may be 
allowed the amendment) perhaps Ducally, 
His Grace acknowledged himself beguiled by 
Cranach's portrait of our young Countess, praising 
the design, the hues, the glaze--the frame 
and appeared averse, a while, even 
to letting the panel leave his hands! 
Examining those same hands, I was convinced 
that no matter what the result of our 
(at this point, promising) negotiations, 
your daughter's likeness must now remain 
"for good," as we say, Ferrara's 
treasures, already one more trophy in His Grace's multifarious holdings, 
like those marble busts   lining the drawbridge, 
like those weed-stained statues grinning up at us 
from the still moat, and--inside as well 
as out--those grotesque figures and faces 
fastened to the walls. So be it!  

Real bother (after all, one painting, for Cranach
--and My Lord--need be  no great forfeiture) 
commenced only when the Duke himself led me 
out of the audience-chamber and laboriously 
 (he is no longer a young man) to a secret penthouse 
high on the battlements where he can indulge 
those despotic tastes he denominates, 
half smiling over the heartless words, 
"the relative consolations of semblance."  
"Sir, suppose you draw that curtain," smiling 
in earnest now, and so I sought--
but what appeared a piece of drapery proved 
a painted deceit!  My embarrassment 
afforded a cue for audible laughter, only then His Grace, visibly 
relishing his trick, the thing around, 
whereupon appeared, on the reverse, 
the late Duchess of Ferrara to the life! 
Instanter the Duke praised the portrait 
so readily provided by one Pandolf--
a monk by some profane article 
attached to the court, hence answerable for taking likenesses as required 
in but a day's diligence, so it was claimed... 
Myself I find it but a mountebank's  
proficiency--another chicane, like that illusive curtain, a waxwork sort 
of nature called forth: cold legerdemain! 
Though extranea such as the hares 
(copulating!), the doves, and a full-blown rose 
were showily limned, could not discern 
aught to be loved in that countenance itself, 
likely to rival, much less to excel the life illumined 
in Cranach's image of our Countess, which His Grace had set 
beside the dead woman's presentment... And took, 
so evident was   the supremacy, 
no further pains to assert Fra Pandolf's skill. 
One last hard look, whereupon the Duke resumed his discourse 
in an altered tone,  now some unintelligible rant 
of stooping--His Grace chooses "never to stoop" 
when he makes reproof... Lord will take this 
as but a figure:  not only is the Duke no longer young, his body is so 
queerly misshapen that even to speak of "not stooping" seems absurdity: 
the creature is stooped, whether by cruel or impartial cause--say 
Time or the Tempter-- I shall not venture to hypothecate. Cause 
or no cause, it would appear he marked 
some motive for his "reproof," a mortal chastisement in fact inflicted on 
his poor Duchess, put away (I take it so) for smiling--at whom?  
Brother Pandolf? or some visitor to court during the sitting? 
--too generally, if I construe the Duke's clue rightly, survive the terms 
of his... severe protocol.  My Lord, at the time it was delivered to me thus, 
the admonition    if indeed it was any such thing, seemed no more of a menace 
than the rest of his rodomontade; , he pointed, as we toiled downstairs, 
to that bronze Neptune by our old Claus 
(there must be at least six of them cluttering 
the Summer Palace at Innsbruck), claiming 
it was "cast in bronze for me."  Nonsense, of course.
But upon reflection, I suppose we had better take 
the old reprobate at his unspeakable word... Why, even 
assuming his boasts should be as plausible 
as his avarice, no "cause" for dismay: 
once ensconced here as the Duchess, your daughter 
need no more apprehend the Duke's murderous temper 
than his matchless taste.  
For I have devised a means whereby 
the dowry so flagrantly pursued by our insolvent Duke ("no 
just pretense of mine be disallowed" indeed!), instead of being 
paid as he pleads in one globose sum, drip into his coffers by degrees--
say, one fifth each year--then after five 
such years, the dowry itself to be doubled, 
always assuming that Her Grace enjoys 
her usual smiling health.  The years are her 
ally in such an arbitrament, with confidence My Lord can assure 
the new Duchess (assuming her Duke abides by these stipulations and his own 
propensity for accumulating "semblances") the long devotion (so long as 
he lasts ) of her last Duke... Or more likely, if I guess aright 
your daughter's intent, of that young lordling I might make so 
bold as to designate her next Duke, as well... 

Ever determined in My Lordship's service, remain his Envoy 
to Ferrara as to the world.  
Nikolaus Mardruz.

- Richard Howard

Review: Dracula – Bram Stoker

9780141439846So, there are several things that jump out about reading the OG Dracula novel.

One is that it would be really, really cool to see a movie adaptation of this book that is actually an adaptation of this book. It’s somewhat famously been stated that most adaptations are of the stage play, and now most are just straight-up based on previous movie adaptations, what’s a stage play?

Jonathan, Seward, and especially Mina are the main narrators of this novel, and they’re quite interesting protagonists in their own right: Jonathan is intelligent but naive, and develops into a man of absolute will and iron nerve, fired by the need to protect his beloved wife and avenge his own hurts. Seward is cool and analytical, but not nearly as much as he wants to be or thinks he is, and struggles with things outside of the settled science that he understands. And Mina is very much the unsung heroine who glues the plot together…and provides much-needed brainpower at times.

It would also be cool for said faithful adaptation to focus on the horror of vampirism, rather than the OMG DID YOU KNOW VAMPIRISM IS A CODE FOR THE SEX? TEE HEE angle that every. single. movie. and the thrice-damned urban fantasy genre in general ever has gone in necks-deep for. Yes, there is a definite aspect of addictive pleasure to vampirism: Jonathan has a moment of temptation with the Brides, Lucy has a personality shift post-death. But it’s played for more of the addiction angle: it’s something that subjugates the real personality to another’s thoughts and will, something that enthralls rather than bewitches, something that’s not titillating at all when its soulless eyes are leering into yours and offering you a fix. The Count’s predation on Lucy slowly destroys her physically, kills her mother, turns her into a monster that preys on children, and forces her to tempt the man she loves into a similar fate, even though she’s absolutely horrified by this in her lucid moments. The Count is not portrayed as a mysterious, tormented lover: he’s a stalkery thug who picks random women who catch his eye and physically injures them just because he can and wants to.

Being a vampire is nothing desirable. It’s terrifying to the victim, who can feel their will being overridden and the pain of their body being physically attacked and weakened, drained of blood. It’s horrifying from the outside, to the people who may not even know why their friend or child–or lover–is in such pain. And then it’s horrifying because now the person you loved is going to do the same thing to someone else, and is going to laugh about it.

Back to that hypothetical very cool movie adaptation: there’s a lot of scary, atmospheric, horror-type scenes, too, that never make it into the movies. The apocalyptic voyage of the Demeter, with crew disappearing one by one and the captain finally lashing himself to the wheel for the final trip through shoal and storm could be it’s own movie all by itself (has there been?) Then, there’s the Count’s final attack on Lucy–beginning with a howling wild wolf smashing through the window while she is too weak to call for help, her mother dying in her arms, leaving her trapped in the same bed as the corpse. Or the invasion of Carfax Abbey, when the hunters are suddenly swarmed by a horde of rats (to be rescued by a reserve team of terriers….) Those scenes are scary! And cool! They deserve to be seen on film!

[Complete sidenote: there is a very low-budgeted indie horror-Western movie called Shroud….which, well, we’ll discuss it some  other time, but it’s almost worth watching the negative-budget stunt fights for the twist at the end. The twist at the end makes you just want to pat this movie on the head and tell it nice things because, awwww, it has ambitions, lookat d’cute li’l dumb thing.]

There’s also some pretty darned thrilling action scenes that I don’t think have ever been adapted, either: the hunters confronting the Count in his London lair–Jonathan lunging at him with a kukri and then following him through a broken window–or even or Quincy Morris shooting at an eavesdropping bat. There’s the tension of the race to Europe after the Czarina Catherine and then, afterwards, tracing the Count’s river journey back towards his castle.

In fact, most of what I consider the strongest part of the novel–the point-by-point investigative work, tracing the Count to Carfax Abbey and then back again outwards from it, finding where he’s hidden his other spare coffins and systematically destroying them–just seems to get completely left out. Which leads to my second point:

The second point about this book is that there is a really taut, thrilling, action horror pulp novel in there. Problem is, it’s covered up with generous. nay, heaping dollops of melodrama that really don’t play as well to the modern eye as perhaps it did to the pre-modern. There’s a lot of weeping, hugging, emotionally swearing brotherhood, eternal trust, holy vengeance, more weeping, eternal brotherhood, emotional hugging, weeping, promising of trust….et cetera. The problem isn’t that any of this stuff is there, because some of it is a vital part of character progression and development. The problem is that there’s oodles too much of it and it gets in the way of the interesting stuff that happens.

There’s also the fact that roughly half of the characters aren’t really paying attention to what’s going on in the rest of the book, and as such, are prone to making the stupid and repeated mistakes of deliberately excluding Mina from the war council after Mina has provided crucial intelligence for the cause, ignoring Mina when she’s obviously suddenly anemic, ignoring random bats outside the war-council-room window, ignoring your canary in the coal mine when he warns you that Mina is in danger RIGHT NOW, and then, after finding out that (GASP) Mina has been preyed upon and vampirized by the Count….then and only then deciding that you are going to trust her utterly and include her in all councils hereafter. (Mina herself has to be the one to tell them not to do this.) Van Helsing has the paper-thin excuse that he thinks Mina might be pregnant and needs to stay out of it, but Seward knows how vital, useful, and well-informed Mina is, and Jonathan has zero excuses to make.

So, this book is a deeply uneven read. When I first read (listened via librivox, which is a great resource if you didn’t know about it) this book, I loved it for what was actually quite a small portion of the book: the investigation parts, where Jonathan, and Arthur Holmwood are at their very best, tracing the Count’s movements and and lairs (with some baksheesh), and then using social engineering to outright freaking burglarize a vampire’s legally-purchased house and destroy his earth box coffin lairs in broad daylight plain sight. I also loved the three-part chase: the Count fleeing by boat up-river, and the hunter’s company trailing him by river, horseback, and by carriage, each group armed with rifles of the same caliber so the ammunition is interchangeable, and the horseback group including a saddle with a removable horn that can be adapted for Mina. I mean, logistics! What more can you ask for?

But these verisimiltudinous touches keep getting interrupted, and worse, spread out by the aforementioned oozing emotional melodrama, taking up way too much page time, telling and not showing, removing the focus from the laconically thrilling medical mystery-slash-detective vampire hunter story, and padding the wordcount (probably.) Oh, and speaking of verisimilitude, the epistolary format allows for the inclusion (via Mina collecting and pasting them into her journal, dont’cha know) random POV snippets such as the random reporter who interviews the zookeeper about a missing wolf, or the invoice receipts from shipping companies. It’s all about logistics, I’m telling you. 

Well, logistics….and ignoring Mina. However! I have an elegant and simple solution for this particular problem, and it is thus: have Mina not be there. When the action moves to Carfax and the asylum, have Mina remain in London–and move into Lucy’s former home, to help administrate the estate while the trustee (Arthur Holmwood) is out of town. Thus, Mina is living in the house that the Count has the ability to enter; it keeps her at a remove from the men who should recognize instantly that anemia, pallor, and lethargy  = vampire; and it could allow the timeline to be tightened up a bit.

Honestly, though, my only other main criticism is that the main characters’ voices are all fairly similar, with Jonathan’s being the most distinct only inasmuch that he tends to downplay his emotions (while Seward denies that he’s actually wallowing in them…whilst in the midst of wallowing in them, and Mina just straight-up either cries or makes everyone else in the room cry.)

All that being said, this is a good book and it’s a shame no one ever made a movie of it.

Rated: I stand with him. To close you out.


for love alone

Alberich smothered a rejoindering sneer from Jehan by saying lazily, “The women among the Pastless ride into battle some times with their men. They carry long knives. There is no greater fear for a wounded man.”

Vay flicked a glance at him from averted eyes, unsure whether this constituted support.

It didn’t.

“They are barbarians.” Alberich said, and went mute again. He appeared, as usual, entirely ready to say nothing more for the rest of the evening.

Vay gathered up her, well, courage. “Sire–then you will say it is not a matter of courage.”

“Is it any less dangerous to bear a child? This thing that you do for love alone?”