Sunday, May 1, 2016

Late Night Ruminations: Frazetta and the Dark Dimension

Jongor Fights Back, Frank Frazetta, 1967

Deep into the quiet nights of my youth in the '70s, before the endless murmuring of the electronic ether, I would sit and read and reread all the books and magazines and comics I had at hand. The silence focused my attention on the images and words, with them evoking, in turn, images and emotions beyond what was on the pages before me. Eventually, gradually, I began to grasp that some of these works, the ones that most deeply stirred me, were by certain writers and artists. Among the first artists I began to appreciate for what their talent could conjure within me was Frank Frazetta.

Frazetta's universe is dark and whirling. Each image is a lightning-flashed frozen moment, a glimpse into a dark dimension. So much of his work is of a lone protagonist fighting for his life, sometimes the life of another, but the battles are often lonely. Empty stone halls, twilight-lit wilderness, dank swamps, and frozen mountains are often the stages upon which these tableaus play out to their grim conclusions.

There is no implied glory here; these struggles are personal. Some might argue this is not heroism, but simply survival. But I have often thought that in Frazetta's universe these battles are, indeed, heroic, with the protagonist's demon-grappling a fight to shrug off their own shadow, to bring a hero forth from within that can make the world a better place, or at least a bit less dark.

In Frazetta's universe, the antagonist is often unseen or a force of nature. It is more about what the protagonist is doing, how he prepares for and prosecutes battle. In that universe, readiness for war is always a virtue.

The image accompanying this post may seem like a strange choice. Yet, it is quintessential Frazetta. The title, Jongor Fights Back, while unnecessary, is perfect. We already know everything we need just from the image. Somewhere in Frazetta's endless dark dimension, a warrior defends himself and his companion, awkwardly perched on a reptilian mount, with threatening aerial creatures in a gyre above and about them. The spare background adds to the dreamy feel of the picture, a timeless moment that is a reflection of eternity. The action is the real protagonist here, as in so many Frazetta works.

I bought a print of the above painting. Its presence is a portal into that dark dimension to which my thoughts are so often drawn, even now, so long after they were first lured there.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Time's A-Comin'

Seems like Halloween, all shadows and scattered leaves, was just here, doesn't it? But Halloween cast its spell over October, and it was dispelled when November crept in soft and quiet. As much as I love Halloween, it can't last forever; otherwise, it would lose its power, becoming commonplace. It will pad back around on black cat feet again, cloaked in dour gray skies, once September's new-school-year bustle and excitement wear off.

Thanksgiving here in the States kicks off almost a month-and-a-half of the holiday season. Some resent the length of that season, but I don't. The world can be a rough place, and if we can collectively agree to maintain a holiday spirit, even if only nominally at times, the longer the better, I say. I dig the excitement that is in the air when Thanksgiving rolls around. Yeah, I know, a good bit of it is in anticipation of Black Friday sales, but so what? Sure, we've all seen the news stories of folk taking the sales too seriously and trampling each other or fist-fighting over dwindling stocks of the latest toy or tech item. But in my experience, there is a festive air out there. Overhead on the days and nights before Thanksgiving, the sky is filled with planes going every direction of the compass with travelers heading home for Turkey Day. New arrivals are happy with the rush of seeing loved ones too long apart. The Christmas decorations that began to show up in stores as early - too early! the Halloween fan in me gripes - as August begin to gain context.

I can find a lot of inspiration for cultivating and maintaining a Halloween spirit. It's almost too easy, really, and one needs to be - well, should be - discerning in one's Halloween-evoking. I'm more the haunted-house-on-a-hill, black-cat-with-raised-back-and-spitting-maw, Headless-Horseman, friendly-ghost type of Halloween enthusiast. But Christmas is different. It's about cultivating love and joy and peace, and in the world of today, or any era, really, that's tough to generate and maintain. It's easier to brace oneself for a zombie apocalypse or a vampire winging its way across a night sky than to wholly embrace the possibility of a bright and festive time when dreams are granted and promises made and kept. Halloween and its horror is often predicated on being alone and (often playfully) helpless, whether it's in a corn maze or a purpose-built haunted house. That's why I like the thronging crowds of Christmas shoppers, the ubiquity of Christmas music and decorations, the reassurance of the religious message; it's helpful to see evidence that others are making that same effort at holiday cheer, that the world may actually have a light for good in it.

So here we are, Christmas rushing upon us. My shopping is done, the month is on track for being one of the warmest on record here, and nary a hint of the snow from last year is in the offing. It's looking like a good Christmas is about to arrive, and I hope that's true for you, too. Merry Christmas. Let's take a listen to something from my Appalachian roots, with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

From the Grave It Arises: This is Halloween: The Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy

Life sails on, erratic in its course, riding the currents of time. The ocean of centuries stretches out in all directions, unchanging. The tide of night rolls in for us all, eventually, pulling us over the horizon in our allotted time. Time's earthly manifestation, the encircling seas, reminds us of the vast temporal gulfs that surround us. Perhaps in some small way we leave our marks, memories of deeds adrift upon the darkling waters, that can heave into view unexpectedly, like derelict ships upon the sea lanes.

Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy, by Eric Mills, isn't the kind of book I expect to see from the Naval Institute Press. Staid and reputable, the NIP puts forth volumes of lore, history, and instruction, giving context to the Navy and its eternal vigilant patrol. But, I remind myself, haven't tales of the supernatural been intrinsically part of the experience of any and all who've put to sea? Are not stories of ghostly mariners and mystery ships among the most-related of ocean stories? So I should not have been so surprised to see this book.

Slender yet meticulously sourced, this book brings a dignity to the genre of ghost stories not often seen. The full weight of the long, glorious history of the U.S. Navy is put to good effect here, drawn on to bring an air of legitimacy rarely available to any study of the paranormal. The tales stretch across the centuries, from the War of 1812 to the Vietnam War, from icons of the Navy like John Paul Jones and Stephen Decatur still lurking about the U.S. Naval Academy and its environs, to supercarrier deckhands still performing ghostly flight operations on ships long since converted to museums.

Author Mills goes to great lengths to give the reader context for all his stories. Quick yet evocative biographical sketches bring to life figures from history who are long since dead, yet restless in their slumber. The dashing Stephen Decatur, the very manifestation of what became Naval ideals, is, perhaps, the most memorable of the figures discussed in this book. Brave, colorful, endlessly energetic, the Decatur Mills depicts will surprise no reader in his ability to transcend death itself. Even ships come to life, from the blockade runner Dash confounding the British during the War of 1812, to the mighty U.S.S. Texas slugging its way across the Atlantic to help clear the shores for Patton and Operation Torch. Such vibrant subjects seem only too likely to leave a spiritual imprint upon the world.

Mills's style is pitch-perfect here. Weighty, slightly florid, a touch archaic, yet with a hint of good humor, the prose evokes the right kind of mood for the subject. The tales are all the more spooky for the history that Mills goes to pains to detail without overwhelming the reader. The history runs across a spectrum of the human experience, from anger and jealousy to glory, honor, and duty. In the end, though, there is an air of sadness and tragedy to all of them; without some troubling emotion, what would hold a spirit to the world of the living?

From the Grave It Arises: This is Halloween - Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.

Long before the internet allowed us to find in no time at all an ocean of Halloween-themed music and stories, Disney released this memorable oddity.

It's the kind of record that's been around for a while. Perhaps it was the power of Disney, a juggernaut even in 1964 when this album was first produced, that caused it to become so pervasive during the Halloween season. The version I had was the 1973 edition of it, so I was still in single digits, age-wise, when I first got it.

The evocative cover image set the mood: simple, but spooky. Listening to it recently for the first time in years, I'm struck by how odd and disjointed it is. The first side presents brief narrated vignettes that attempt to put a scary context around non-scary sounds. Look at this track list:

"The Haunted House"  
"The Very Long Fuse"  
"The Dogs"  
"Your Pet Cat"  
"The Unsafe Bridge"  
"Chinese Water Torture"  
"The Birds"  
"The Martian Monster"  

It starts out strong, at least as strong as a Disney record of this vintage can be. "The Haunted House" is a tour-de-force, combining many of the sound effects found on the album - and some that aren't - into an effective, old-fashioned haunted house aural landscape. But the going gets rough from then on.

"The Very Long Fuse," "The Unsafe Bridge," and the anachronistic "Chinese Water Torture" tracks don't have much of an impact. It's damned tough to make dripping water sinister. "The Martian Monster" is a silly bit of fluff. I mean, it just is, even if the crunching and munching is grating.

There is some eeriness in "The Dogs," with a lonely, far-off hound baying in a presumably darkened landscape building into a huge pack in full pursuit by track's end. But for someone like me who has grown up around dogs, the dread just never really manifests. The most successful track of the first side, besides "The Haunted House," is "Your Pet Cat." Yes, the narration takes up two-thirds of it, but that screeching is nerve-wracking to me.

The second side is where this record really lights up, and I recall endless replays of it by my eight-year-old self.

1. "Screams and Groans"   0:57
2. "Thunder, Lightning and Rain"   2:01
3. "Cat Fight"   0:37
4. "Dogs"   0:48
5. "A Collection Of Creaks"   1:54
6. "Fuses and Explosions"   1:11
7. "A Collection Of Crashes"   0:45
8. "Birds"   0:33
9. "Drips and Splashes"   1:18
10. "Things In Space"   0:53

Devoid of any context, the narration of the first side absent here on the second, my mind would create its own horrific scenes. "Cat Fight" sounds brutal. "Thunder, Lightning, and Rain," regardless of its canned sound, evokes the storms of old movies. "Things In Space" is a nicely mysterious track of what I would have imagined a flying saucer or other alien craft would sound like...despite the fact "Things In Space" wouldn't, y'know, make any sounds.

But the track that is solid gold here, not just on this side but on the entire record, is "Screams and Groans." It's worth the price of admission alone. I don't know who these actors are, or were, but Holy Toledo do they go above and beyond to cut loose with some unsettling shrieks.

The second side is a nice collection of sound effects for...well, just for listening in a darkened room with friends, or even a budget-rate haunted house. Sure, you can find recordings that are technically better from a technological standpoint, but few have the vintage sheen of this one.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Summertime, and the livin' is easy...

It was a glorious early July day. Mid-70s, pleasant humidity, the buzz of lawnmowers and weedeaters providing a bed for the bird songs that were filling the air. It's difficult not to feel ashamed at the sheer good fortune I have in living where I live, and the serenity that infuses it.

Of course, my intrepid pal, Tyler the Wonder Dog, took advantage of the peace of the afternoon by contemplating his existence from his couch-back bed, indolently pondering his life like some Roman patrician.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas, 2014

A bit of holiday cheer from the Blue-Eyed Idol-o'-millions, Mrs. Grimm's bouncing baby boy, Ben, the every-lovin' Thing! It's Christmas-clobberin' time!
I do celebrate Christmas, so I wanted to post a little something to note the holiday. For those who celebrate Christmas or the other holidays that come this time of year, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Yule, and season's greetings for others I have inadvertently forgotten to mention.

First, one of my traditions (though "traditions" might be overstating it) is to view and ponder upon this message sent to Earth from the crew of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968. I continue to marvel at the notion of what they must have felt and experienced as the people to have traveled the farthest from home.

Second, here is one of my favorite Christmas songs, a fairly obscure number by Dada, with a twist on the pining of a lost love at Christmas. Christmas and melancholy: a potent combination.

And there you have it. Wherever and whoever you are, Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rushing down the hill.

At times I scroll through my Facebook "friends" list or the "people you may know" section, and I'm struck by the sheer variety of the lives hinted at by all the profile pictures. There is a vibrancy to it all, a sort of energy that shimmers just out of reach of my senses. The grand tapestry of humankind is shown in microcosm, a mosaic of faces and forms caught for a fleeting moment. Simple portraits, full-length photos, couples, children, families, old pictures honoring loved ones now lost, sporting events, brief pauses during work, parties, weddings, beach pictures, pets...scrolling through them can make them seem an interconnected whole, a vast web of humanity unknowingly connected. They're all frozen moments, time temporarily halted and encased in amber, instants rendered eternal.

These gossamer-sliced bits of eternity fascinate me. It's an old subject for me, yet still fresh and constant, a through-line for my thoughts from adolescence into adulthood. This time of year brings these thoughts even more into the forefront of my mind. The long rollercoaster climb up the hill of the year finally crests at Halloween, when the veil between the worlds is thinnest, with a pause as we now face Thanksgiving here in the States. And then, of course, the coaster will begin its headlong hurtle down the rest of the year with its holidays and travel and year-ending climax, with fading momentum rolling us into a new year. The pictures, some of them, will change, new moments captured and held until another is more suitable, more indicative of what we want to show the world, what we want to preserve in a momentary forever. The coaster begins its long ascent again, with us hardly noticing, which is a bit of irony given that time-keeping is a construct of our own, built to somehow codify the constant change around us, to try to make sense of it.

The rollercoaster is also part of a vast passenger train system, too. I recall riding the subway in New York City, and watching out the windows as the train rushed along, and seeing other trains, mere brightly-lit windows in the dark, gliding close and then pulling away into the speeding shadows again. More faces, more lives, caught for a moment, all ascending the same temporal hill.

This time of year, from Halloween until New Year's, is when I often reflect upon life, and time, and how the two are really one and the same. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I reflect upon these things more than usual this time of year. It's all the avatars and signposts of life and death that come to the fore: the ending and beginning of Halloween, when the dead and living occupy the same world for a brief time, whether in fiction, folklore, or religion; the past, present and future as shown in the multitude of takes on A Christmas Carol, with the choices we make setting us upon paths we cannot see unless we are made to look; and, of course, the great ending and beginning itself, the end of the Old Year and the arrival of the New, with Father Time himself being made manifest in various forms. But it's the faces that really mark the time, each momentary image a lifetime, all whirling past in a blur while we ride the rollercoaster.

Friday, October 31, 2014

This is Halloween: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

 Angry, bruised clouds smeared across a sky filled with strange stars look down upon a bombed-out wasteland. A dog scrambles from one pile of rubble to another in the wreckage looking for a haven, while elsewhere, children flee from dark spirits pursuing them across a nightmare-scape. The world is empty of adults; the children are left to fend for themselves, forcing them to take on adult roles and grapple with concepts beyond their years. On paper, it seems yet another dystopic tale; in execution, it's one of the most beloved, gentlest Halloween tales ever produced.

There's at least a small bit of irony that one of the truly iconic Halloween stories, at least here in the US, is also one of the least terrifying.
Peanuts goes meta: Lucy pores through a TV Guide issue with a familiar figure on the cover.
Following up on the success of the previous December(of 1965)'s A Charlie Brown ChristmasIt's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, first aired in October 1966, drawn from a running series of Halloween-themed strips from the daily Peanuts comics. Starting in 1959, Charles Schulz began using a gag that was rather slight in premise, but which made him laugh: a kid who has mistaken Halloween for Christmas, and waits to be rewarded for his faith in the titular Santa Claus analog. Linus' letter to the Great Pumpkin encapsulates the entire concept, including an interesting notion about faith:

This is a different Linus than who appeared in A Charlie Brown Christmas. In that earlier story, Linus is a steady, faithful friend to Charlie Brown, level-headed and spiritually enlightened. As was often true in the daily comics, in the Christmas special Linus was one of the few Peanuts characters who did not ridicule or insult Charlie Brown. There, he accompanied Charlie Brown on his quest for a tree, and even defended the choice later when all the others had scorned it. Here, though, is a Linus who seems slightly befuddled and more quick to lash out, even at Charlie Brown.

Plus, he also catches serious air as he enjoys Charlie Brown's and Snoopy's leaf-raking handiwork...

...which provokes a rare show of fury by Charlie.

This is a fittingly odd cartoon all around. Many of the familiar faces act slightly out-of-character here, in keeping with the holiday that has so much to do with changing faces.

"A person should always choose a costume which is in direct contrast to her own personality." - Charles Schulz is having fun here with one of his strongest characters.
The narrative is almost leisurely, going off on tangents, yet somehow tying the threads back together. It is more a mood piece than a plot-driven story.

The moodiest and strangest sequence is Snoopy's World War I "flying ace" fantasy. Here he performs a pre-flight check on his "Sopwith Camel"...

...before going up and at 'em to engage von Richtofen's Flying Circus...
...almost immediately having to dodge furious flak barrages...
...and subsequently taunting and laughing at his opponents' lack of success...
...which is only a brief respite before he's raked by gunfire in a harrowing dogfight with the infamous Red Baron.
He is shot down...
...and miraculously survives a crash-landing...
...yet still has enough fighting spirit to curse his airborne opponent.
He scrambles across the French countryside...
...braving abandoned trenches in search of cover...
...until he chances upon a battered farmhouse that offers some shelter.
Clambering into a lighted window...
...he  slides down a curtain during the height of the Peanuts' Halloween party...
...before gazing impishly at the viewer.

The show evokes a mood that is decidedly different than its newspaper counterpart. In that regard, the "Big Three" of Peanuts holiday specials - A Charlie Brown Christmas, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - distinguish themselves as separate entities from, and, in some ways, transcend the comic strips. Distilling concepts and ideas from years' worth of daily strips and melding them into one (semi)coherent narrative, lends the specials a kind of gravitas that the strips alone could rarely match.

And let's not forget Sally Brown's brilliant disillusioned rant after missing out on "tricks and treats" because she chose to believe in Linus' assertions: "What a fool I was! I could have had candy, apples, and gum! And cookies and money and all sorts of things! But NO. I had to listen to you. You blockhead. What a fool I was." I really dig the structure of this monologue.
It seems strange, even to me, to use a word like "gravitas" for Peanuts cartoons, but it is appropriate. These specials deal with profound truths, even if they bury them in silliness and non sequiturs. Here, it is about faith in the face of adversity. Linus sticks to his beliefs even as he misses "tricks or treats," and is roundly laughed at, including, and uncharacteristically, by Charlie Brown.

Of course, Charlie Brown receives a good dose of instant karmic justice for this.
Even when his hopes are finally and conclusively dashed, Linus sees it not as the nonexistence of the Great Pumpkin, but rather as an indication that his faith has not been strong enough, that he chose the wrong pumpkin patch in which to await the arrival of the phantom gift-giver. It's a surprisingly complex concept for a kids' cartoon special.

Of course, even the most devout may make a Freudian slip that expresses an inner doubt.
I also wanted to mention another sequence that is unexpected in its tenderness, in which we see a character wearing yet another unaccustomed face.

Lucy awakens as the clock strikes 4AM.

She finds her brother's room empty.

Geared up against the early November chill, she finds Linus shivering in the pumpkin patch. This is one of the few instances I can recall of her face showing concern.
She leads the not-quite-conscious Linus home...
...where she lovingly readies him for bed...
...and tucks him in.
Her task over, the customary scowl returns.

It's a sweet, quiet moment for a character not known for being either sweet or quiet.

For me and many others I know, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is an indispensable part of the Halloween tradition. There is no real hint of the supernatural, no real scares, yet somehow the spirit of the Halloween season is captured. It's a nice contrast to the increasingly hyperviolent and mega-gory takes on the season and holiday seen in TV, movies, and prefabricated "haunted houses."

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

This is Halloween: Something Wicked This Way Comes

The gray, glowering skies of late October have arrived, along with sharp winds and falling leaves. The far-off rattle and thump of a high school band floats through the night, signifying a football game being battled out. Flyers and billboards flog a multitude of haunted houses horrifying their willing victims. Leering pumpkins, grinning scarecrows, and moldering zombies frozen mid-lurch haunt the yards of the suburbs. Still, cold nights have the faint, furtive sounds of leaves falling in darkened woods, evoking thoughts of skulking spirits. No other time of the year so readily offers such sinister imagery.

Few books I've ever read truly capture the mood of this time of year as thoroughly as Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Much of this comes from Bradbury's style: lush, moody, and evocative. He conjures a world of idyllic innocence, into which shadows creep almost unnoticed. Those shadows come from within, though, seeping up out of the depths of our souls, hidden fears and suppressed wishes that can be drawn forth by those who know, instinctively, our weaknesses that we dwell upon in the dark hours. They know them because they also have them, embracing them and gazing directly at them, becoming warped and hateful and manipulative, thriving on the negative energy that radiates forth. This is Bradbury's power, the ability to plumb the murk of nightmares and existential terror, while still retaining a faith in our essential strengths.

Bradbury's writing in this book clutches at my heart. It's like looking back at my own youth, viewing the past through nostalgia's soft-focus lens, with a darkening of that lens casting a sinister light on memories. I've read the book a few times throughout my life, the first time when I was the age of the two protagonists, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, and most recently as I now approach the age of Will's father. While my perspective has changed, the same sense of melancholy, the same feeling of fighting, at best, a holding action against time, has persisted with each reading, growing more acute and clear as I've aged. Bradbury was able to touch upon something even more terrifying than the undead and unstoppable slashers: the unavoidable and ever-approaching reality of our mortality.

This is a story of life and aging. Will and Jim, born minutes apart, with Will born just before Halloween, and Jim born just after it had arrived, are polar opposites. Will is the light and Jim the dark. Jim is always looking to the future, wishing away his years to gain an adulthood he most desires to experience. Will is content to live his years as they are given him, experiencing the now, perhaps in order to create memories, but most importantly, to live life as it is meant to be lived: in the present. Charles Halloway, Will's father, lives in the past, longing for the youth his son owns now, prowling the library at which he is a custodian, searching among the stacks for some bit of wisdom that forever eludes him. It is the story of the eternal conflict within us all: when young, we race to get older, to finally become the adult we know will finally unlock the secrets we felt were hidden from us; when older, we reach for the youth we once had, finally realizing that the secrets were never really secret, but held within us all along.

The plot here is of secondary importance. A dark carnival train arrives in a small Illinois town in the middle of the night, just prior to Halloween. Jim and Will begin to see the truth of the traveling show as more and more people fall prey to the promising lies of Dark and Cooger, owners of the carnival. There is a swirl of nightmares made manifest, with unsettling parades and chilling sideshow performers and an evilly enticing midway drawing in more and more townsfolk. Mr. Dark is a menacing presence, with a hidden fury barely suppressed as he threatens Jim and Will and Will's father. Dark is, essentially, a bully, intimidating those who allow themselves to be intimidated...much like the real dark. The struggle here is with our own doubts and fears, our propensity to surrender to false hopes in order to stave off the always-encroaching ultimate darkness.

This is a book that is experienced more than it is read. Bradbury's lyrical prose leads us down an evening path, his words like guiding stars, a comforting beauty through a looming horror laying just at the edge of our awareness. This is Halloween to me, a more adult, somber Halloween, that sits with me long after the book is read and the day has passed.