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.