Oct 312014
 
Since today is Halloween, it seems appropriate to write something about the longest-running and many would say the best comic book series about a vampire ever published. I'm referring, of course, to Marvel's THE TOMB OF DRACULA, which ran for 70 issues from 1972 to 1979. Recently I've been reading THE ESSENTIAL TOMB OF DRACULA, VOLUME 1, which reprints in black-and-white the first 25 issues of
Oct 312014
 
Was are at the end of Traveling The Globe. It was quite a ride throughout the various places in the world. But what would be a more fitting end than a nice scary place to go along with the ghoulish escapades of Halloween. We travel to Transylvania and the land of Dracula.


Trouble in Transylvania
by Barbara Wilson


Cassandra Reilly heads off to Budapest to visit her friend Jack while en route to China. In a complicated turn of events, the two soon find themselves in a spa town in the Transylvanian Mountains, attempting  to solve the mystery of the death of Dr. Pustulescu, inventor of an anti-aging formula. In a wide-ranging plot that encompasses everything from Romanian orphans and their American parents to Cassandra’s own spa treatments in search of how Dr. Pustulescu met his end in the electric bath, Cassandra and her friend bring new life to Dracula country.
 Posted by at 7:30 am
Oct 312014
 
Halloween is my favorite holiday. Candy, monsters, candy, ghosts, candy, bats (of all kinds) and no uncomfortable family dinners. It also happens to be my wedding anniversary - this year marks fourteen years of marriage to my own Batgirl, Brandi. I'm a very lucky guy. With her in my life, it's tricks and treats all year 'round!

Here's wishing you and yours a truly spooktacular celebration!

Bullet Points: Eve of Haunts Edition

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Oct 302014
 
• Online voting has begun in the contest for the 2014 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. There are seven categories of nominees, but the one that may interest Rap Sheet readers most is the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Book of the Year. Here are the contenders:

-- Unravelling Oliver, by Liz Nugent (Penguin Ireland)
-- The Kill, by Jane Casey (Ebury Publishing)
-- The Final Silence, by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker)
-- Can Anybody Help Me?, by Sinead Crowley (Quercus)
-- The Secret Place, by Tana French (Hachette Books Ireland)
-- Last Kiss, by Louise Phillips (Hachette Books Ireland)

Choose your favorites here. I don’t see anything about this competition being restricted to Irish citizens, but note that the voting will close at midnight on November 21.

• Unbidden but nonetheless willing, John Harvey--whose recent Charlie Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, I appreciated so much--has put together a list of what he says are his 25 favorite crime novels. “It will immediately become clear there are exceptions: no Hammett, no Chandler nor other ‘classic’ crime--so obvious that to mention them was, to my mind, unnecessary; and some writers--Michael Connelly would serve as an example--are not there on the grounds that the stream of their work is so strong, I would find it impossible to lift one prime example from the rest.” Among the novels that did merit inclusion are Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, Kent Anderson’s Night Dogs, George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Daniel Woodrell’s Give Us a Kiss. You’ll find all of Harvey’s picks here.

• Who remembers the 1979 TV series A Man Called Sloane? My only recollection is that star Robert Conrad left another series, Stephen J. Cannell’s The Duke, after only two episodes in order to play freelance spy Thomas R. Sloane III in this nearly as short-lived Quinn Martin production. Writer Christopher Mills, though, appreciated Sloane enough to compose an episode-by-episode series of posts in a blog called Spy-fi Channel. That blog is now defunct, but Mills is in the midst of revising those Sloane posts (“editing them a bit and adding a few new thoughts and observations”) for another of his blogs, Atomic Pulp and Other Meltdowns. Keep up with his series here.

• The latest update of The Thrilling Detective Web Site is now live. It includes editor Kevin Burton Smith’s “spontaneous tribute” to the late Rockford Files star, James Garner, and expanded entries on characters ranging from Stryker McBride and Joey Fly to Yakov Semenovich Stern and Steve Allen’s Los Angeles gumshoe, Roger Dale. Smith also brings the welcome news that Thrilling Detective finally has “a decent search engine,” which you can access here.

• I must admit, I envy author-educator Art Taylor for his recent opportunity to interview Otto Penzler on behalf of the Los Angeles Review of Books. They had a nice long talk about editor Penzler’s work on a couple of new short-story collections, The Best American Mystery Stories of the 19th Century (which I reviewed here) and The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries. Penzler also clues Taylor in on what he’s been working on “since January”: another major compilation, The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories.

• Edward A. Grainger (aka David Cranmer) asks, in Criminal Element, why Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896) hasn’t received more attention over the years--why has it “slipped through the cracks of popular reading?” He suggests it’s “because nothing can live up to the Great American Novel--Huckleberry Finn--that preceded it. Ernest Hemingway famously said, ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.’ No such praise met Tom Sawyer: Detective, with the British Guardian’s original review harshly noting, ‘The whole story is poorly conceived and badly put together.’”

• Although I’ve missed the actual anniversary, I still want to bring attention to the fact that last week the Paul Newman-Robert Redford picture Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid marked 45 years since its general release on October 24, 1969. I’ve watched that romantic adventure many times, and hope for multiple more viewings. It’s just a fantastic film, with one of the best knife-fight scenes ever!

• There are now only two weeks left before the start of Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach. In his BOLO Books blog, Kristopher Zgorski offers a selection of interesting “non-panel-related activities which will be happening during the conference.” Those include the “Author Speed Dating” event scheduled to be held at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, November 13, during which more than 100 authors will “pitch” their books to Bouchercon attendees, hoping to attract new readers.

• Haven’t registered for Bouchercon? You can still do it here.

• Apparently, author Max Allan Collins (for whom the adjective “prolific” seems to have been invented) composed the liner notes for a new eight-CD set called Jazz on Fillm: Crime Jazz. He describes the line-up of pieces as “astonishing”: “77 Sunset Strip,” “Hawaiian Eye,” “Checkmate,” “Shotgun Slade,” “The Naked City,” “Richard Diamond,” “Bourbon Street Beat,” “M-Squad,” “The Untouchables,” “Peter Gunn,” “Mr. Lucky,” “Staccato” and “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer”--“both the TV series soundtrack and the music from the rare Stan Purdy ‘Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer Story’ LP,” Collins explains. A list of the musicians represented in this CD set is here.

• Patricia Highsmith--comic book writer?

• One of my fellow Kirkus Reviews bloggers, John DeNardo, this week posted a list of “10 Things This Fan Was Surprised to Learn About Science Fiction.” I was no less taken aback by one of his factoids:
Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land is about a man named Valentine Michael Smith who was born and raised on Mars. The story concerns Smith’s trip to Earth and his first-ever interaction with Earth culture. The book is considered one of the most popular science-fiction novels of all time. What surprised me was learning that in 1968, the book inspired a man to found a Neopagan religious organization modeled after the religion founded by Smith in the novel, the beliefs of which include polyamory, social libertarianism and non-mainstream family structures.
You learn something new (and maybe weird) every day, I guess.

• I’m not convinced that we really need a new, American version of Wire in the Blood, the British ITV series that ran from 2002 to 2008 and was based on Val McDermid’s novels about a university clinical psychologist who works with police on serial-killer cases. Yet Crimespree Magazine brings word that ABC-TV is developing such a program with the help of a couple of veterans from the underappreciated Detroit 1-8-7. I know I’ve asked this before (and I shall probably ask it again in the future), but why can’t Hollywood come up with new ideas, rather than recycling old ones?

• This doesn’t sound good: In Reference to Murder reports that “CBS reduced the episode order for CSI to 18 episodes, down from 22. The show is in its 15th season, and this is the first time the drama will have produced less than a full season of episodes.”

• While looking back on the 1959 thriller Night Without End, Vintage Pop Fictions remarks that its author, Alistair MacLean, “does not deserve the relative oblivion into which he has fallen.” I made that same point last year in this piece for Kirkus Reviews.

• Brian Drake interviews Anonymous-9 (aka Elaine Ash) on the subject of Bite Harder, the sequel to her 2013 novel, Hard Bite.

• Finally, since tomorrow is Halloween, I’d be remiss in not linking you up with a few associated postings around the Web. TopTenz chooses the “Top 10 Most Haunted Cities in America,” while The Bowery Boys--an excellent New York City history blog--looks back at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stunning announcement, in April 1922, of “an extraordinary discovery--the existence of ectoplasm, the ghostly goo that emits from mediums possessed with the spirits of the dead.” Publishers Weekly tries to identify “The 10 Best Ghost Stories,” but both The Poisoned Martini and Too Much Horror Fiction have other suggestions. Terence Towles Canote rounds up his favorite horror film postings from A Shroud of Thoughts, while Vintage45’s Blog revisits Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), the 1969-1971 British TV program about a London private eye whose late partner is still helping him solve crimes--a show I previously wrote about here. And since this post can’t be completely serious, check out Cracked History’s eye-catching rundown of the “10 Sexiest Halloween Costumes.”

The Spookiest Little Publisher in the World

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Oct 302014
 


  

The Spookiest Little Publisher in the World
A Hallow's Eve visit to visit Cemetery Dance Publications, one of the unlikeliest--and scariest--small-business success stories in publishing.
To a casual observer, Forest Hill, Maryland, is light on evil. Corn grows tall in the fields, but no vacant-eyed, scythe-wielding juveniles lurk among the stalks. Campaign-season lawn signs promote the ominous sounding Sheriff Bane, but--judging by the photos on his web site--this guy is no one’s idea of a demonic enforcer. At least the local Waffle House is good for a quick gut-curdle.
But Forest Hills is home to Cemetery Dance Publications, the country’s leading specialty publisher of horror and dark suspense. For years its flagship magazine has arrived quarterly in my mailbox, delivering even on the brightest day in May a whiff of autumn decay. All the dark stars--Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Gillian Flynn, William Peter Blatty, Joe R. Lansdale and many more--have appeared in the magazine or in the company’s trade or limited-edition books. My basement shelves--my literary id--are crammed with this stuff.
As many as a thousand independent magazines have come and gone in the decades since “Rosemary’s Baby,”“The Exorcist,” and “Carrie” ushered in a horror renaissance. To put Cemetery Dance iit in horror-film tropes, Cemetery Dance is the virtuous-yet-smokin’ brunette who survives the slaughter. Contributors have praised it for sustaining the genre even during the depths of the ’90s, when horror was often played for laughs (“Scream”) or thinned down to juvenilia (“Goosebumps”). The company’s line of hardcover books-;many illustrated, signed by the authors, and sheathed in elegant covers--helped elevate disposable paperback fodder into the realm of collectibles.
Like most genre fiction, horror is sometimes art, often craft, and too often (thank you, Internet) crap. Since its early days, Cemetery Dance has had pick of the litter: it receives more than 5,000 stories every time it opens submissions. Recently, founder Richard Chizmar posted a call for Halloween-themed entries on his personal Facebook page: in two weeks he had 150. The publisher spurns trends (Splatterpunk, swoony vampires) in favor of atmosphere, storytelling, and freshness. “We don’t buy a lot of zombie stories,” says Managing Editor Brian Freeman. “It’s rare to find something where by page two you’re not like, ‘OK, they’re going to end up at the Walmart.’”
Chizmar and Freeman are also admirably democratic: selecting first-rate submissions from no-names over second-rate submissions from names. The result is more and more-varied voices than mainstream publishers typically corral. “Every issue of Cemetery Dance has the kind of wild-eyed, freewheeling quality that Hunter Thompson used to call ‘gonzo,’” says Peter Straub, bestselling author of 17 novels, including the seminal “Ghost Story.” The editors “have always been open to the whole range of the genre they love and, even more importantly, appreciate.
“Chizmar and his crew are willing to gamble, and they are right more often than not,” says Straub. “In any case, whatever they choose to publish is worth reading.”
***
Cemetery Dance Publications lives in a featureless office park around the corner from a logistics company. A pair of office dogs greets me with boundless enthusiasm and no Cujo-esque ‘tude whatsoever. They are followed by Freeman and his wife, Kate, who handles production and design and is cradling their 11-month-old son, Charlie, and here is where I give up on looking for Forest Hill's heart of darkness. As family businesses go, this one is more Waltons than Addams. 
An upcoming Halloween anthology from Cemetery Dance—available as a hardcover and as a $500 limited edition featuring autographs from luminary contributors.
Dressed in a faded T-shirt and Under Armor cap, Chizmar, 49, looks like a suburban dad who coaches his kids’ sports teams, which is what he is. “We adapted the story ‘Eater’ for [the NBC show] ‘Fear Itself,’ and at one point we had a guy frying up a human tongue,” says Chizmar, who also writes horror fiction and screenplays, the latter with his actor friend John Shaech. “What I always hear is, ‘you are so normal. I can’t believe you do this stuff.’” 
Cemetery Dance was a typical college startup, launched by Chizmar in the late 1980s while he was studying journalism at the University of Maryland. Sidelined from lacrosse by an injury, he spent his newly free time writing horror stories and peddling them to small magazines. “There were a bunch of them-;New Blood, Death Realm, Grue. I could have 20 stories out at one time,” Chizmar says. “I would get the magazine in the mail with a check for $5. A lot of them I didn’t even want to show to anybody, because they were stapled, poorly photocopied, no thought to design. I kept thinking, ‘I can do better than this.’”
At first, Chizmar reached out to potential contributors through writers’ organizations and personal contacts. The author and editor David Silva, who at the time was shutting down his own revered magazine, The Horror Show, became an advisor. Even in the early days, rising authors like Bentley Little, R.C. Matheson and Steve Rasnic Tem appeared in Cemetery Dance’s pages alongside unknowns. Meanwhile, Chizmar made sure the titans of the terror trade received each new issue. “In the small presses, people were really stingy with giving copies away, which I understood because of the finances,” says Chizmar. “But I knew from the beginning Steve King, Peter Straub, Bill Blatty--these guys are not going to buy my little magazine. I sent it free to anybody and everybody who was a prominent figure I would eventually want to work with.”
Within three years, the mountain came to Mohammed. Chizmar received a postcard from Chuck Verrill, a literary agent. “Dear Rich,” it read, “I hope this finds you well. A couple of months ago I sent you a manuscript from Stephen King, and we were wondering if you had had a chance to read it yet?”“I sprinted down the hall of my apartment, tore through the slush pile, and found one with the agency sticker on it,” says Chizmar. “It was nice and fat.”“Chattery Teeth,” an unexpectedly touching tale about an oversized wind-up toy that dispatches an evil hitchhiker, debuted in issue 14. Cemetery Dance was firmly planted.
In the early ‘90s, a few presses were publishing hardback horror. But the market was dominated by mass-market paperbacks that could be purchased in an airport store at trip’s beginning and ditched in an airport trash receptacle at trip’s end. With a growing stable of authors who trusted him as an editor and a growing base of readers who trusted the Cemetery Dance name, Chizmar decided to create his own book imprint. His first title was an original: “Prisoners & Other Stories,” by the crime writer Ed Gorman, with an afterward by Dean Koontz. Both writers signed all copies. “’Prisoners’ is still the best-looking book to ever appear under my name,” says Gorman, a frequent contributor to the magazine. “It also brought me a kind of attention I’d never had before. And that was all Richard’s doing.”
Today Cemetery Dance publishes as many as 20 hardcover books a year, ranging from original anthologies and novels to autographed limited-editions of popular titles from such authors as Gillian Flynn, Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, and Frank Darabont, who developed “The Walking Dead” for cable. Prices range from $18.95 for trade books to well over $150 for what Chizmar calls the “super-fancy-crazy-deluxe-lettered editions for the super-collectors." The collector gene is a common mutation among horror fans, he notes. “A lot of them grew up collecting those Aurora monster model kits, and they had to have them all.”
The company’s biggest seller to date is “Blockade Billy,” a 2010 baseball yarn by King--packaged with a special baseball card--that the author offered first to Chizmar. The company printed 25,000 copies-;many of them for libraries--an unprecedented run for Cemetery Dance. Then Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and others wrote about the book, and major retailers like Amazon started clamoring for huge orders. Unable to meet demand, Chizmar stepped aside and Scribner stepped in.
Cemetery Dance remains a small business with under $5 million in sales, and most of that comes from books. “If we looked at it from a straight business standpoint we would stop publishing the magazine,” says Chizmar, who estimates he has a subscriber base of 10,000, and that each issue sells another 5,000 copies at newsstands. “A big company would have shut it down years ago because it’s not profitable enough. But I’ve got such a sense of nostalgia and affection for it. It’s the company’s beating heart.”
***
The boogeyman under Cemetery Dance’s bed is the same one haunting virtually all publishers. Cemetery Dance’s loyal fan base is aging, in some cases dying off. And while people return from the grave from all kinds of reasons, renewing magazine subscriptions isn’t one of them. “There’s a lot more visibility of horror these days in television and movies, but not so much in books,” says Chizmar. “At a couple of schools I went to recently I said, ‘Raise your hands if you know who Stephen King is.’ Ten years ago, all the hands would have gone up. Now, maybe a third. So I’ll say,’ raise your hands if you’ve seen the remake of “Prom Night.”’ Now you see hands.”
Freeman, also a horror writer, is 14 years Chizmar’s junior. Since joining the business in 2002 he has been nudging Chizmar toward a digital future by building out Cemetery Dance’s e-commerce function, exploiting social media, and--most recently--experimenting with e-books, of which the company offers 60. Freeman is also working on a digital edition of the magazine, “although a lot of feedback we get from people is that they really like having it show up in their mailbox,” he says.
“We have a lot of customers who are 25 to 30 years old, although it’s still a small percentage of the base,” says Freeman. “But every year I’ll hear from people who found us online while they were looking up a new author they just discovered.”
One of Cemetery Dance’s most creative experiments in social media kicks off on Halloween, when Chizmark plans to embark on a quest to reread the entire Stephen King oeuvre in order and blog about each book. The effect should be something like Julie Powell’s episodic recounting of how she prepared all the recipes in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” only with pig’s blood instead of onion soup. 
Chizmar will also invite visitors to the blog to describe the circumstances under which they first read a particular book. King fans, he says, tend to remember those experiences. He may be right. I started “The Stand” as a freshman on my first train trip to college and finished it later in my dorm. One night, Steve Lewis, who lived in the room next to mine and had noticed me reading it, hid in my closet and lurched out at me when I opened the door. I do not blame Stephen King for this. I do blame Steve Lewis. Chizmar reminds me that EC Comics is a great source for revenge ideas.
I ask Chizmar and Freeman if, after all these years, anything they see or read still scares them. All the time, they say. Freeman’s weak spot is zombies: “this idea of people you know-;your friends, your family, your neighbors-;trudging along and they’re them but also not them,” he says. “There is something primal about being 10 years old and there’s mom and dad and they are going to eat me.”
Chizmar cites the last 30 pages of “Revival” (the new King novel being released next month) and then starts reeling off movies: “28 Weeks Later,” (rage virus) “The Descent” (cave monsters); “30 Days of Night” (Alaskan vampires).
“The first ‘Paranormal’ movie didn’t scare a lot of people,” he says. “But I watched that with my son at night, with the lights off. Halfway through I said, ‘Billy, let’s finish this tomorrow in daylight.’ And he said, ‘OK.’”

Oct 302014
 

My recent blog posts have generated a lot of controversy. On the one hand, there are those who agree that there should be a ban on issuing visas to Ebola hot zone nations, as well as mandatory quarantines for returning medical workers. On the other there’s a vocal contingent that feels that science doesn’t support that.

My position is clear. We have a deadly, virulent pathogen with 70% mortality rate, for which there’s no cure. It doesn’t present with any fever 13% of the time, so that marker, for screening, or for quarantine purposes, is meaningless as a protective measure. And 5% of those who will fall prey to Ebola do so after the 21 day incubation period is over – up to 42 days after, so the 21 day quarantine is guaranteed to fail to catch one in twenty of those who will go on to have it, infecting plenty as they go.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and arguing by the vocal contingent that feels that quarantines are part of the “hysteria” that folks who don’t understand the issue with their keen insight fall prey to.

That’s badly mistaken. But that’s what they believe, generally without having done much, or any, research beyond watching the news and reading an occasional Yahoo article. Of course, they also feel they shouldn’t have to know anything besides what their heart tells them. Research? That’s for crazies. Who’s got time to research?

The arguments are always politically motivated, with no basis in science. But they’re strident arguments. Usually peppered with pejoratives. “Hysteria.” “Scare-mongering.” “Panic.” “Loons.” That sort of thing.

The problem is they lack any merit.

I tend to be skeptical of all claims, and use logic, science, and research, to arrive at conclusions. And I listen to acknowledged experts. For instance, a premier heart surgeon’s opinion carries significantly greater gravitas than someone who’s read two articles about the functioning of the heart on Web MD.

Enter a man, a doctor who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2011. He knows a thing or two about Ebola, and about epidemiology. One could argue he knows more than most living on the planet. Certainly more than politicians or clueless media hacks. He’s about as big as it gets on the topic, and he has spoken.

Guess what? He favors strict quarantines. For the exact reasons I have been arguing.

Surprised? Why would you be? I talk to a lot of doctors. They universally think the political BS that’s driving policy decisions on Ebola are likely to result in a lot of people dying who could have avoided it, because the measures that are in place have very little value.

And the NY doctor who lied about his self-quarantine? The nurse in Maine who refuses to comply with her quarantine? They are either complete dolts willing to endanger everyone as tribute to their narcissism, or they are deliberately trying to endanger their fellow man. Those are the two possibilities. I frankly don’t know which it is, and don’t much care.

I do know that the debate about quarantines is misguided foolishness. Of course you need to quarantine anyone who could spread the plague, especially given that 13% won’t have a fever even when their viral loads are through the roof.

But don’t take it from me. Take it from the 2011 Nobel Medicine prizewinner in medicine. I think we can all agree that makes him more up on the topic than anyone reading this blog. If you still feel your opinion is superior to his, I invite you to share your Nobel prize in medicine with us so we can grasp what the good doctor missed.

Of course, the vocal denier contingent, like Holocaust deniers or those who are convinced the earth is flat, won’t be swayed by one of the world’s foremost experts in the subject telling them they’re sadly mistaken. Because they have a unique grasp of the truth. Even if it flies in the face of reason, they’re convinced they’re right, just as so many bad singers on talent shows are convinced they can sing, and so many mediocre students believe themselves to be above average.

Normally I wouldn’t care. But this is the future of the U.S., and the entire continent, we’re talking. Isn’t it about time to start listening to the adults, and not those with foolish political agendas?

We are staring a full blown epidemic full in the face, and the politicians and CDC are inviting potential carriers into the country at a rate of 150+ per day, in spite of the fact that most hospitals are not equipped to deal with a BSL-4 pathogen, ensuring it will spread when the infected show up at their local medical center. The CDC, the President, and a bunch of idiot health care providers are arguing against quarantines – which the Nobel prizewinner says is a recipe for epidemiology disaster. Guess how many arguing against quarantines are experts on epidemiology? None. They’re empty suits.

Which should scare the crap out of every thinking person. It’s akin to giving the sixteen year old the keys to the liquor cabinet and the car, and asking him to voluntarily behave while you’re out of town for the week.

It won’t end well.

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Oct 302014
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE UNINVITED. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Ray Milland, Gail Russell (debut), Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Alan Napier, Corneila Otis Skinner, Dorothy Stickney, Barbara Everest. Screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle. Music: Victor Young (“Stella by Starlight”). Cinematography Charles Lang. Directed by Lewis Allen.

   First a a huge SPOILER WARNING in flashing red lights if you don’t know the film or the novel. Things are given away here you should see the first time in the film or read in the book.

   The Uninvited is a whodunnit — at least a whohauntedit, a murder mystery.

   Well, partially.

   The Uninvited is a romantic comedy.

   Parts of the beginning certainly and there are light touches throughout.

   The Uninvited is a psychological thriller.

   Getting closer.

   The Uninvited is a modern gothic.

   Almost there.

   The Uninvited is a ghost story.

   No, that’s an understatement, The Uninvited is the film ghost story.

   Robert Osborne, hosting an episode of the Essentials on TCM with Drew Barrymore that featured Robert Wise’s The Haunting, put it best. The Uninvited is the best ghost story ever filmed. It was then, it is now. All the special effects, all the pyrotechnics, all the leap out of your seat and scream movies made before or since pale beside this simple little tale of love, jealousy, and murder beyond the grave — with a human assist.

   Because The Uninvited has something no other ghost story has, something as uncomplicated as this: The Uninvited has absolute unshakable conviction. These are ghosts you will not laugh at. Whatever your beliefs, however rational you are, this movie will do its damnedest to at least convince you for its short running time that Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) is under siege by a spirit beyond the grave eager to take her life in an act of other worldly revenge. And for most people, viewers and critics alike, it succeeds — it more than succeeds.

   Is it Stella’s goddess-like mother, Mary Meredith, or the foreign model, and her father’s mistress, Carmel comforting Stella, threatening Stella? Which spirit weeps for Stella Meredith, and which wants to drive her to suicide? You will care if you watch this one.

   And you will consider sleeping that night with the lights on.

   I suppose this film won’t mean much to the gore and goo fans, there is nothing in it to make you throw up or gag, but its scares are deep and real, the frisson they induce a deep soul chilling hair on the back of the neck crawling kind of fright that for me has only been approached a handful of times on screen — the final moments of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the ending of John Farrow’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, The Innocents, Val Lewton’s best, and too few others; it is the genuine fright and nerve chilling presence of supernatural evil the inexplicable, the hidden, the uninvited. It’s a stunning debut for both Gail Russell and director Lewis Allen.

   It is the best ghost story ever filmed, and that opinion is shared with no few critics. Critics who don’t like anything anyone else praises love this film because it is so unpretentiously and perfectly exactly what it wants to be — a chilly tale of ghosts to follow by a warm fireplace with the lights left on.

   I saw this for the first time at age ten (the same age I saw Ghost Breakers, a good year) on the late movie on a Friday night with my mother after a stormy night had passed and neither of us could sleep. When my father got home the next day he wanted to know why we were sleeping so late and every light in the house was turned on.

   Rick (Ray Milland, Roderick in the book) wants to write music, and with his sister, Pam (Ruth Hussey), and their dog Bobby, he spies an old cliff side house on the rocky moody Devon coast. They could never afford it of course, but it turns out the Commander (Donald Crisp) wants rid of it at a price they can just hope to pay. He’s unfriendly and downright hateful, and apparently a snob as well, for he wants his grand-daughter Stella — a moody fey girl who lies to Milland and Hussey to keep them from buying the house — to have nothing to do with the new tenants — and to stay away from the house at all costs. He is selling it in hopes of keeping her away.

   You know that won’t work. Ray Milland is going to London to arrange the move while Hussey stays behind, and feeling pity for Stella, whom he took an instant dislike to, he tries to cheer her up falling in love with her as he does. He, at least, is haunted by Stella Meredith, no matter who haunts Stella.

   Milland comes back with their housekeeper Lizzie (Barbara Everest), her cat in tow, and there is something Pam has learned she has to tell him.

   The house is haunted. And that night he hears the weeping of the ghost.

   Milland: “Does it come every night?.”

   Hussey: “No, just when you start to think you dreamed it, it comes again.”

   A haunted house, what a lark, but not to Hussey There is something. Maybe that’s why the housekeeper’s cat is freaked out. Maybe that’s why their loyal dog runs away, maybe that’s why the housekeeper won’t stay in the house overnight and frets over the two young people she virtually raised living in such an evil place.

   Or maybe it’s that beautiful room with the north light, Stella’s artist father’s studio, now Milland’s music room, maybe it’s because it gets so cold sometimes, or the way it depresses people and seems to drain them. Neither Milland or Hussey notice the first time they sit in the room that they suddenly become depressed, or the flowers that wilt while they aren’t looking.

   And then it might be the weeping woman who keeps them up all night. Maybe it’s just a depressing old place and that’s why Milland can’t quite finish his opus, “Stella by Starlight,” written for Stella Meredith, but suddenly so sad and so haunting when that wasn’t what he meant at all. Maybe it’s just them.

   Not in this movie. Unlike Robert Wise’s The Haunting, these people aren’t haunting themselves. What walks in this house does not walk alone. There is never the least hesitation about it: ghosts are real, and not merely psychological interpretations of impressionable minds.

   Then there’s that cheap scent, lovely, but nothing the elegant and perfect Mary Meredith would have worn, mimosa …

   Old houses, they have drafts, funny noises, there are cliffs and they are on the sea, winds blow, there are caves, there are stories …

   Commander: “Stella will never enter that house!”

   Milland: “Great Scott, you believe it’s really haunted!”

   And there is Stella, drawn to the old house by forces and needs she can’t explain, but somehow so vulnerable in that old place as if the house itself was both a warm loving mother inviting her and a cold murderous bitch trying to destroy her.

   After they have to send for the local doctor, Alan Napier, when Stella is overcome after running blindly toward the cliff where the old dead tree stands, where her parents both died, they learn Bobby is now living with him, and find a new ally in solving the mystery of the house and Stella Meredith.

   There was a scandal, the doctor explains; Meredith had a model, a fiery foreign type named Carmel, a Spanish gypsy. Carmel died a week after Mary Meredith was killed while trying to prevent her husband’s suicide on the cliff. Meredith was a scoundrel it seems and poor Stella has art in the blood, something she seems relieved about compared to the perfect Mary Meredith.

   Stella: “Between you and me and the grand piano father was a bit of a bad hat.”

   When Stella is better, and against her grand-father’s wishes, they invite her back for a seance. Milland and Napier plan to control the seance and convince Stella there is no spirit. Not as good an idea in practice as it may have sounded in theory. Again they sense the strange scent of mimosa, again Stella feels nurtured and warmed — and again something attacks.

   Whatever, it is clear now, the house is haunted — by two ghosts, one Stella’s loving mother, the other a vengeful spirit who is a real threat to her.

   But when the Commander discovers what they have been up to he decides to send Stella away to a home run by her mother’s closest friend and companion, a formidable and cold woman who worships the ground Mary Meredith’s angelic feet hardly touched, Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner who ironically Gail Russell played in the film version of her book Their Hearts Were Young and Gay and its sequel) who created the Mary Meredith Home for Women.

   She worships Mary Meredith a bit too much perhaps because there is a hint of lesbianism you could drive a semi through, never exactly said. They hint the hell out of it though. Big fairly explicit lead booted hints, yet maintaining the perfect balance that is the reason this film is great.

   Miss Holloway: “… her skin was perfect, and her bright bright hair, she was lovely …” Anyone who doesn’t figure out this relationship is painfully naive.

   Just by coincidence the trained nurse caring for Mary Meredith and Stella the night of the tragedy was a certain Miss Holloway.

   Stella hates and fears her.

   Milland and Hussey visit Miss Holloway and hear her version of the story. Carmel tried to kill Stella, Mary Meredith saved her but fell to her death. Meredith killed himself.

   And then in the strangest of coincidences, the wind just happens to blow open the journals of the old doctor Napier replaced to the notes on Mary Meredith and Carmel, a quite different tale than the one they have been led to believe. Mary Meredith was a cold murderous bitch, who the old doctor suspected murdered Carmel by leaving windows open so the pregnant woman caught pneumonia — while she was pregnant with Meredith’s child, Stella.

   Mary Meredith wasn’t murdered by her husband. They fell to their death while he struggled with her to keep her from throwing herself and Stella off the cliff in a fit of vindictive and murderous jealousy. Mary Meredith is a monster of epic proportions. Miss Holloway murdered Carmal as far as the old doctor was concerned.

   Don’t screen this one on Mother’s Day.

   This is the secret the Commander has held all these years. The secret Miss Holloway would kill to protect, the secret of the old house, Mary Meredith’s secret. Stella isn’t really his grand-daughter, and the goddess Mary Meredith was a murderous harridan, but the old man truly loves Stella, he gives his life trying to save her.

   Mary Meredith wants to finish what she started.

   Compel Stella to throw herself from the exact spot where she fell, she has already tried once, the cliff by the dead tree.

   Revenge from beyond the grave.

   Murder from beyond the grave.

   And only Carmel, her real mother, stands between them, and Mary defeated her once already; all she can do is comfort and try to warn her child.

   Not really enough standing against Mary Meredith.

   Thank God Stella is with that monster Miss Holloway. But she’s not. Skinner has gone mad as a hatter and sent Stella home, home to the embrace of Mary Meredith. Mary wants her, and Mary shall have her. And when Stella finds the Commander dying of a stroke at the house, by the sea he tries to tell her, warn her, but too late. Mary Meredith has the hated child within her grasp alone at last, and Stella flees her, running in blind fear towards the very place Mary and Meredith fell to their death.

   Stella: I’m not afraid of anything here.

   Commander: “Then be afraid, be very afraid!”

   Skinner gives a finely tuned performance with an impressive scene of madness. No wonder she was one of the great ladies of the stage and American theater.

   Milland, Hussey, and Napier have gone to take Stella from Miss Holloway. They are rushing back, but can they reach Stella in time?

   The final confrontation with the hated Mary Meredith remains the single best scene of its type ever filmed. Milland, alone on a darkened stairway confronting a murderous spectral form with nothing but a candle for protection, is an image you won’t forget and the final reckoning with Mary Meredith the perfect ending. But don’t be too surprised if your courage cracks a little the way Milland’s voice does. Mary Meredith is something else.

   And, by a narrow squeak, it’s a happy ending. But as Wellington said of Waterloo, a near run thing. As a shaken Milland points out, he might have had Mary Meredith as a mother-in-law. Stella’s relieved too, she’d much rather be the illegitimate daughter of Meredith and his mistress, Carmel, than have Mary Meredith’s cold blood running in her veins. Spanish gypsy beats the cold murderous Mary Meredith by a mile.

   I can’t say as I blame her.

   The title has multiple meanings. Milland and Hussey are uninvited intruders; Stella is uninvited at the house and uninvited into the world; Carmel, the Spanish mistress ,was uninvited,; the Commander is uninvited to the seance and at the end to the house, his death uninvited at that moment; he is clearly uninviting to Milland and Hussey; Milland’s attentions to Stella are uninvited, even their dog shows up uninvited at one point and chases a squirrel who is himself uninvited; the doctor treats Stella and investigates uninvited; Bobby showed up on his doorstep univited; death was uninvited; the spirits dwelling there are uninvited. About the only people actually invited in this film are the viewers.

   If at any moment in this film there had been a single misstep, a single false moment, the whole delicate intricate facade would have collapsed on its own weight, but that mistake is never made. The Uninvited never takes itself too seriously, it never takes itself too lightly. It is never merely heavy, the humor is never just thrown in; it is vitally needed, or this film would be unrelentingly depressing.

   The spirits are just distinct enough to perceive as more than just light and shadow, but never more, they are a presence, but never quite of this world. They have influence over the living, but their power is that of suggestion and mood. At best they can make a rooms atmosphere change, close a door, cry in the night, fill a room with warmth and scent, or with malevolence, turn the page of a vital book at the right time. Even at the end you could just explain them away. Not easily, but if you needed to convince yourself…

   And you might.

   The cast, direction, effects, and script are uniformly perfect with a particular nod to Milland, Hussey, Russell, Crisp, and Skinner who all outdo themselves; especially Milland who does this so effortlessly you may miss how much of this films success depends directly on his performance, his connection with the audience, and his perfectly keyed emotional responses.

   Milland’s timing as light comic actor, his more substantial talents, and his ability to play the hero are all on display. The finale of this film would not work if not for Milland’s ability to effortlessly switch from light comedy to intense fear in the same scene, virtually the same moment — making his defeat of Mary Meredith ironically perfect. Watch also for Dorothy Stickney, one of Miss Holloway’s patients, Miss Bird; it is a great bit part.

   This was a major hit, though a follow up based on another Dorothy Macardle novel, The Unseen with Russell and Joel McCrea, isn’t anywhere near as good despite a Raymond Chandler screenplay, and the same director and production team.

   Do yourself a major favor and find a copy of McArdle’s novel Uneasy Freehold (published in the US as The Uninvited). The film is very close, and the book is also one of the best of its kind ever written. I’ve seen too many ghosts to believe in them, but this movie and the novel always make me think about leaving a nite-lite on. There are more things in heaven and earth than Horatio, or I, care to think about.

   And as frosting on the cake, “Stella by Starlight,” the haunting number Milland’s Rick is working on, was a major hit, much like “Laura” from that film. It is still a beautiful piece, and runs through the movie as a subtle musical cue leading the viewer to that cliff by the house and those final moments on a darkened staircase confronted with pure malevolence.

   Cinematographer Charles Lang won a well deserved Oscar for this. His work is impressive.

   Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman, they have nothing on Mary Meredith. Mary Meredith would unsettle Hannibal Lecter, the demon in The Exorcist would have been possessed by her. Mary Meredith like Du Maurier and Hitchcock’s Rebecca haunts this film even though you never see her save in a cold and forbidding portrait. She is a palpable presence; beside her Norman Bates mother was mother of the year, Joan Crawford was just a little strict, and Medea was having a bad day when she ate her children.

   It is no easy trick to do that with a character who never fully materializes on screen.

   The Uninvited is without question the finest ghost story of its era and for my money the finest ghost story ever filmed.

   This isn’t Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, V. C. Andrews, or Anne Rice. There are no vampires, there is no CGI, no fake blood is let on screen, no green pea soup expelled, nothing leaps off the screen at you. The Uninvited, just wraps it’s chilly hand around the base of your spine with frisson after frisson as visceral as a gut punch. Like Mary Meredith herself, once it has you it won’t let go long after the silver shadows on the screen have faded to nothing.

   I have never watched this alone in the house at night. and quite frankly, I don’t intend to.

   If that isn’t a tribute to a ghost story, I don’t know what is.

   And try walking upstairs with only a candle to light your way when you have finished watching it.

 Posted by at 6:40 pm
Oct 302014
 

Josh wrote such a good post about agent/prospective client relationships that I thought I would add my two cents. The editor/prospective author relationship is quite the same. Like Josh, I attend a number of conventions and conferences every year. If I have been invited by a conference to be a guest editor, I usually do some combination of taking pitches, giving critiques, leading workshops, and doing panels. But regardless of that schedule, I make myself available as much as possible to the attendees. That means I hear pitches in the bar or the lobby and I don’t resent that. That is why I have been invited – to take pitches and mingle with the attendees.

But I too have an issue with the perception that editors (and agents) are unapproachable. At least, I don’t think I fall into that category! As Josh noted, we are in this business because we have a passion for it. I want to make offers on books. I want to sign debut authors. I want to sign established authors. I want to publish books that everyone wants to read.

There are two major drawbacks for me when it comes to attending conferences. First, I have to say no to a lot of people. I hate to disappoint, but not every project is for me or for Midnight Ink. Second, the amount of energy it takes to be “on” from 8am to 10pm (ok, usually it’s bar time) is overwhelming. I try to give each person who approaches me my full attention. Because of that, there are times when I need to take a breather, either I go up to my room for a few minutes or retreat to a green room.

Conferences for me are also about meeting other editors and agents. Because I am not in NYC, it’s important for me to cultivate those working relationships. But at the end of the day, I am a book nerd looking to connect with other book nerds and talk about nerdy book things like publishing and writing.

I am excited for Bouchercon. I won’t take too many pitches there because I am somewhat incognito there as opposed to a writer’s conference, but I will be at the bar nonetheless. Talking books, football, and whatever else comes up. Stop by and say hi. I have this Minnesota nice thing going on. 