This is a historical fiction novel set in the Napoleonic era. It follows British lieutenant James Burke, who is in Argentina as a “confidential agent.” A spy, in other words. While there, he assumes different identities of varying nationalities to worm his way into a position where he can learn the latest news.

With Napoleon’s power growing, the British are trying everything they can to undermine him, which includes taking an interest in Spanish-controlled Argentina. Burke allies with some freedom fighters to scout the land for a potential invasion by His Majesty’s forces.

Of course, this is a spy thriller, and Burke, like another famous literary spy with the initials J.B., is a ladies’ man, and soon is sleeping with Ana, the beautiful wife of a local merchant. Ana has all sorts of connections with major players in Argentinian politics, and in addition to their romance, provides Burke with useful information for plotting a British invasion.

But Burke also makes powerful enemies, including one who soon proves to be critical to the future of the nation. Amidst political machinations and the occasional bumbling of his own country’s military commanders, Burke finds himself having to improvise one plan after another to keep himself alive.

The book is engaging and fun. I know next to nothing about 19th-century South American politics, but the story and characters are so vivid it was easy to follow along with the plot. Williams’ descriptions of the terrain are excellent, making it easy to picture the caravans, troop movements, and other maneuvers in which Burke is involved.

There is also just the faintest element of the supernatural to the tale. At the very beginning and the very end, Burke has an unusual experience which makes him feel like a man guided by the hand of Fate. It’s very subtle, as is appropriate, but I liked the touch.

Burke is a supremely capable man, pragmatic and sometimes cold, though he can be swayed by feminine wiles. He occasionally pauses to reflect on the grim amorality of his work, as he manipulates events and people to further the aims of the British Empire.

In fact, if you read between the lines, while Burke may tell himself he is doing this to defeat the evil Corsican, in actual fact it’s hard not to see it as simply one more conquest by Britain. As best I can tell, l’Empereur was interested in South America solely to the extent it was a possession of Spain, with which he was allied. British foreign policy in the early 19th-century was that Bonaparte’s empire had to be destroyed, and the best way of doing that was to establish an even bigger empire, that happened to be owned by London. Convenient, eh?

But I don’t expect you to trust me on this point, dear reader. After all, I have been accused of harboring Bonapartist sentiments in the past. (I swear, the bust of him on my bookshelf is only there for aesthetic reasons!)

Read the book for yourself, and make your own judgments. Because, while Williams may take literary license now and then, the events are firmly rooted in historical fact. Like, James Burke was a real person. So was Ana, and so was the main antagonist of the book, whose name I’ll not reveal since it could be something of a spoiler.

As I read it, I kept thinking what a good film or TV series this book would make. I was picturing Patrick McGoohan in the role of Burke. Of course, even if we could use a time machine to offer the role to the late Mr. McGoohan, he would probably turn it down for much the same reason he did the role of 007. Alternatively, one could imagine Rowan Atkinson as Burke and Tony Robinson as his servant, William Brown, but that’s not quite the right tone…

But enough of this idle silliness! Read this highly entertaining book, and whatever conclusions you draw about Burke or the nation he serves, appreciate British military intelligence for all the amazing tales of espionage they’ve given us over the centuries.

The Outer Worlds is one of my favorite games in recent years. I’ve played through it twice and a bit. I didn’t finish my third run as a melee fighter, but I was delighted to fire it up again with my original character to play the DLC.

Peril on Gorgon begins with the captain of the Unreliable receiving a package containing a severed arm and a datapad. The datapad instructs the recipient to meet with Minnie Ambrose in her manor on Gorgon.

Minnie is trying to track down the journal of her mother, Olivia, who was a scientist working in a lab on Gorgon where things went very, very wrong. (As often occurs in video game labs.) Minnie wants to restart her mother’s experiments on Adrena-Time, and needs some to comb through the marauder-infested labs of Gorgon to piece together what happened with Olivia’s experiments.

On Gorgon, we find a ravaged, lawless world that makes Edgewater look civilized. There is one small outpost, the Sprat Shack, that serves as a hub of sorts, but otherwise it’s a largely hostile and barren world with lots high-level enemies to fight. There are a few interesting vignettes in keeping with the game’s signature offbeat humor, but it’s largely fighting, with much of the plot delivered from audio logs scattered around the planet.

Which is fine. The combat in Outer Worlds is smooth and fun. There is one thing I found a little disappointing, and this is pure gamer nit-picking, so readers not interested in a discussion of equipment crafting may skip the following three paragraphs.

One of the things the DLC promises is new weapons and armor. And indeed, there are plenty of new armor sets and unique weapons. The armor was fine, but I have two issues with the weapons. First, with the exception of three new science weapons, they look identical to the weapons in the base game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a little bit of a letdown when you get a new revolver that belonged to one of the major characters in the DLC that looks like any other revolver.

Second, and more importantly, the unique weapons aren’t that great. Pretty much all of my weapons were modified to Tartarus and back before I ever set foot on Gorgon, and whenever I would try a new weapon from the DLC, I’d inevitably put it aside after a few minutes and go back to my heavily-customized arsenal.

Now, I know: not every player is into crafting, and for those who aren’t, the unique weapons could be a lot more exciting. I admit, I was hoping for additional equipment on a level similar to that found in the DLCs for Outer Worlds‘ spiritual ancestor, Fallout: New Vegas. Every New Vegas add-on delivered new and interesting weaponry, from Dead Money‘s holorifle to Honest Hearts‘ Thompson gun to Old World Blues‘ K9000 to Lonesome Road‘s Red Glare.

But that’s really only a small quibble. The game itself is highly enjoyable–it’s more Outer Worlds, after all, so how can that not be good? Minnie’s quest to restart her mother’s work has a variety of possible outcomes, and the one I got was very satisfying. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say I did a quick re-spec of my character and put 150 points in the Persuade skill in order to get it.)

The Outer Worlds is a game perfectly suited to DLC. It’s logical to add a new planet to explore with each add-on. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.

Lastly, one word for anyone who already played Peril on Gorgon and is just reading this to see what I thought:

Llama!

Okay, I know most of you couldn’t care less about American football. But hear me out on this.

George Plimpton was a pioneer of participatory journalism—that is, journalism in which the writer actually participates in what he’s writing about, as opposed to simply describing it as a bystander. His many exploits included playing in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, boxing with Archie Moore, and pitching in an MLB game.

But arguably his most famous act of participatory journalism was his time as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. Plimpton joined their camp during the 1963 season, and participated for five plays in an inter-squad scrimmage. Here’s how he introduces the fateful moment:

“The offensive team in their blue jerseys, about ten yards back, on their own twenty yard line, moved and collected in the huddle formation as I came up, and I slowed, and walked toward them, trying to be calm about it, almost lazying up to them to see what could be done.”

After his five plays were run, the Lions had lost 29 yards. Certainly an inauspicious playing career, although as time has gone on, it’s proven to be far from the most embarrassing thing to happen to a Lions quarterback.

How interesting could a book about a man being terrible at football be, you ask? Well, that’s just it. Plimpton may have been a bad quarterback, but he was a magnificent writer. He could make anything sound interesting. Something as boring as lining up under center, he makes memorable:

“I took a few tentative steps toward Bob Whitlow, the center, waiting patiently over the ball. I suddenly blurted out: ‘Well, damn it, coach, I don’t know where to put my… I just don’t know…’

The coaches all crowded around to advise, and together we moved up on Whitlow, who was now peering nervously over his shoulder like a cow about to be milked.”

What makes Paper Lion great isn’t Plimpton’s scrimmage performance by itself. That just serves to give the book a structure and a dramatic climax. But the real meat of the book is in Plimpton’s descriptions of what goes on behind the scenes of an NFL team, like the annual revue they put on after the final roster cutdowns, in which the rookies mock coaches, veterans and league officials. Plimpton describes himself performing in the role of then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle:

“I wore a Napoleon hat, a cloak, a wooden sword, three cap pistols and a rubber dirk; and I carried a pair of handcuffs, a tack hammer, and a frying pan. These artifacts… were supposed to suggest the inquisitorial aspects of Rozelle’s office.

…and when I clanked toward the footlights, and said ‘Howdy, I’m Petesy Rozelle,’ the audience delivered a stiff barrage of invective.”

Or, during a hazing session where rookies are made to sing their college fight songs before the entire team, Plimpton struggles to recall his alma mater:

Crimson in triumph flashing

‘Til that last white line is past.

er… We’ll fight for the name of Harvard

‘Til… that last white line is past….

There are his depictions of all the Lions players, like Earl Morrall, the journeyman quarterback who would later go on to join the legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins, and of George Wilson, the Lions’ firm but good-natured coach. Dick “Night Train” Lane, whose record for interceptions in a season still stands to this day. Dick LeBeau, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career as a defensive coach, was a member of the team, whom Plimpton recalls the players likening to a pop star.

Above all, there are the antics of lineman Alex Karras. Karras was suspended for the 1963 season for gambling, but he still makes his presence felt as Plimpton recounts stories of him. Karras was a hambone, a performer by nature, always improvising skits and stories to amuse his teammates waiting in the hotel before a game, as in his recollections of an imagined “former life” in World War II:

“I knew all those cats, Runstedt, Goering–Bavaria Fats we called him–and Rommel. He had a terrible weak stomach, Rommel did. He used to get sick all the time. I’d come rushing up to him in the morning to fling the salute at him, and say, ‘Hello, hello, heil, heil, good mornin’ gener’l,’ and he’d get sick.”

It’s no surprise Karras went on to a career in acting after his football days ended. He had a natural gift for entertaining—but then, as Plimpton describes, as game time drew near, he would grow serious, and sick to his stomach. Karras’ queasiness and unpredictable temper actually reassured his teammates: “Alex is ready,” they murmur when his mood turns sour, “In five minutes he’ll be out there on the field making the poor fellow from Philadelphia opposite him pay for it.” Plimpton concludes the chapter, “We crowded into the elevator. No one said anything going down. Karras would sit alone on the bus.”

Plimpton had an incredible talent for knowing just how to end a chapter. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anyone else who could do it as well as he could. Here’s his conclusion of the chapter about his ill-fated scrimmage, when he hears a woman in the stands call out to him:

“She was wearing a mohair Italian sweater, the color of spun pink sugar, and tight pants, and she was holding a thick folding wallet in one hand along with a pair of dark glasses, and in the other a Lions banner, which she waved, her face alive with excitement, very pretty in a perishable, childlike way, and she was calling, “Beautiful; it was beautiful.”

The fireworks lit her, and she looked up, her face chalk white in the swift aluminum glare.

I looked at her out of my helmet. Then I lifted a hand, just tentatively.”

Plimpton’s time with the Lions occurred in the shadow of departed star quarterback Bobby Layne, who had led the team to multiple NFL championships in the ’50s. Legend has it, Layne cursed the team when they traded him, saying they would not win another title for 50 years. And as of this writing, they still have not, being one of the worst franchises in the NFL over the last half-century.

I wonder if the book would have been the same if Plimpton had chosen some other team for his experiment. He had tried to go to the New York Giants, the New York Titans (now Jets) and the Baltimore Colts. But somehow, it seems right that it was the Lions who had this awkward, lanky quarterback who wore number 0 and who stumbled on his first play from scrimmage. There is a poetic quality to it—someone who knows he hasn’t got a chance, but is trying anyway, because, well, how else to know what it’s like? 

The Lions play on national TV every Thanksgiving. Generally, they lose. Even if they don’t, the game is usually meaningless, as they have almost always been eliminated from playoff contention by that time. But I love this tradition, because there’s a kind of melancholic beauty to it, just as there was to Plimpton’s venture. Sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner on a dreary day—as midwestern November days always are, somehow even when they are sunny—and watching the Honolulu blue and silver appear on the screen as the Lions go into another ill-starred competition makes me think of old Plimpton and his wonderfully nerdy courage. 

It’s said that the owners of baseball’s Chicago Cubs believed that fans didn’t care about winning as much as they did entertainment. They were probably wrong, but I still see where they got that idea. Anyone can cheer for a winner; but it takes something special to cheer on a perennial loser, year after year. Don’t we teach kids it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game?

And in a way, Plimpton did win. He wrote one of the greatest sports books ever—a book that captures both the details of the game and the poetry of it. Football is a late autumn sport, and is tightly connected with the mood of the season. As John Facenda said in the intro to an NFL films production I once saw, there is “something somber in the eyes of the men, something of winter in their faces…” Paper Lion depicts football’s essence, in all its violent, weird, funny, fading autumnal glory.

I’ve loved football since I was a kid—I first read Paper Lion when I was 13 years old—so I’m probably biased. But I do believe it’s possible to enjoy the book even without being a football fan, because Plimpton was such a fantastic writer. In the introduction to the 1993 edition, Plimpton described an encounter with a rustic fellow who came up to him and said that he had only ever read one book—Paper Lion. Flattered but nonplused, Plimpton asked if he’d ever considered reading another one. The man replied with the greatest compliment a writer can receive: “Have you written another one?”

Indeed, he had, and this is why I think even a non-football fan may enjoy Paper Lion. I’ve read lots of other things he wrote, on subjects which normally hold no interest for me, but which I enjoyed anyway because of his masterful storytelling and wit.

In 2003, less than a week before he died, Plimpton went to Detroit for a ceremony at halftime of a Lions’ game to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the book and reunite with some old Lions’ stars. I remember watching the game on TV, and thinking how weird it was to see number 0 on a football jersey.

Of course, the Lions lost the game, 23-13.

51s-eBLPWELThis is a collection of four short stories, each set in rugged western landscapes, and each with an ironic twist to them. I learned about it from Pat Prescott and had to check it out. I love weird westerns, and these tales fit the bill perfectly. Each one is a short but memorable concept: An impatient mountain man becomes obsessed with a sinister crow. A would-be stagecoach robber experiences a stunning change in his fortunes. A hike in the mountains turns deadly. 

All these stories are good, but my favorite is “Hangin’ Tree’s Revenge.” This is the story with the strongest supernatural element, and the one that most clearly conveys the mood of a weird western. Frontier justice is never far off from outright revenge, and one feels that the desert is governed by mysterious forces that make little distinction between the two.

Anyone who likes supernatural stories with dark twists will enjoy these tales, and that goes double for people like me, fascinated with bleak desert landscapes. The landscape is very much a character in these tales, as in Bruce’s environmentalist novel Oblivion, and it’s a good way to get lost in the eerie desolation.

GossamerThis is the sequel to The Gossamer Globe, which I reviewed here. It’s a fantastic book, and I’ll keep the plot synopsis to a minimum because I would not want to spoil the first book. Gossamer Power follows Lucia, Kailani, Ms. Battenbox, Jevan and other characters from Globe, as well as introducing some terrific new ones, including the handsome Sebastian, who is irresistibly fascinating to almost everyone, and a character known simply as “Glorious Leader” or to use his full name, “Oh Great Glorious Leader.”

All the things I loved about the first book are present here as well: the humor, the sword-fighting, the political intrigue. I was worried this installment wouldn’t live up to the high bar set by the first, but I enjoyed this one almost as much. I say “almost” because this one ends on a cliffhanger, so it doesn’t have a totally satisfying ending. Tonally, it’s definitely The Empire Strikes Back to Gossamer Globe’s A New Hope. 

So much of what makes these books wonderful are the little things, as in when, on having traveled by airship to his native land, the Glorious Leader shows Jevan and Lucia the flying carriages of his home, commenting that the people who clamored for them had no “regard for the fact that an airship is, essentially, a flying carriage. They already existed.” And indeed, how many times have you heard people talk about not having flying cars when in fact that’s basically what an airplane is?

The book is full of little moments like this. Ms. Battenbox isn’t in it much, which is kind of a pity, since she was one of my favorites from the first book, but her keen mind for strategy and her biting wit are still in evidence during her few scenes. At one point, she remarks, “There are many state secrets this sham government will never know about… How stupid are you commoners to think you could imprison me in it?”

In addition to being a bawdy, swashbuckling adventure, Gossamer Power, like its predecessor is also a clever satire, touching on many everything from the “Internet of Things” to the modern surveillance state. Like any good fantasy, for all its outlandish elements, there are some things that really ring true.

It’s a worthy sequel, and I can’t wait for the next one!

tales-from-the-annexeThis is a collection of short stories by Audrey Driscoll, author of the Herbert West series, a brilliant re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s brilliant but amoral scientist. The first seven stories in the collection all tie in with the series. It’s probably not necessary to have read all the books to enjoy them, but I’d say at least The Friendship of Mortals is required reading for sufficient grounding.

“The Nexus” is told in a classic Lovecraftian fashion, in that it is a document contained in a letter. The letter’s author is Professor Quarrington of Miskatonic University. Quarrington reveals his ties to the Starry Wisdom cult, which features in one of my favorite Lovecraft tales, “The Haunter of the Dark.” He goes on to explain how, through his own peculiar skill for predicting the future, he sees great potential for good or evil in his student, Herbert West.

“Fox and Glove” is a mystery story, wherein West’s friend, librarian Charles Milburn, seeks to locate a specific book in the home of a recently-deceased bibliophilic professor to win a bet. Milburn enlists West’s aid in helping him acquire some clues, as only West can, and then sets about uncovering the mystery using his own knowledge of cataloging. One of my favorites from this collection.

“From the Annexe” is an exploration of the homoerotic elements of West and Milburn’s relationship. This story is probably the one that adds the least new information for those who have already read the series, but it’s still a fine character sketch.

“A Visit to Luxor” is a prelude to Driscoll’s novel, She Who Comes Forth. West–now traveling under the name Francis Dexter–and his servant Andre encounter a mysterious man in Egypt.

“One of the Fourteen”–West, again as Dexter, is forced to confront someone from his past at a pub. This story has more outright fantasy elements than the others, and demonstrates how far the protagonist has moved from the ultra-rationalism he displayed in his earlier career.

“The Night Journey of Francis Dexter” is similar to the one before, as Dexter is once again confronting something from his past. He intends to atone, but finds altogether more than he bargained for, and is again caught up in fantastic supernatural horrors.

“The Final Deadline of A.G. Halsey” is the most intriguing of all seven of these stories, because it is the prologue to an as-yet unwritten sequel to She Who Comes Forth. Even as she is dying, Alma Halsey is compiling information on the strange behavior of her grand-daughter since her return from Egypt.

In addition to these seven stories of the Herbert West series, the collection contains seven more standalone stories, and in my opinion, while the West stories are all good, this part is where it really starts to shine.

“Welcome to the Witch House” is a reimagining of Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. Just as she did for Herbert West, Driscoll reinvents Lovecraft’s setting, populating it with real, human characters instead of the paper-thin ones HPL wrote. Driscoll’s retelling only gets as far as setting the stage for the action that takes place in Lovecraft’s story. As she notes in the afterword, she felt she had nothing to add to the rest of it, and abandoned the effort. I beg to differ. Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s most fascinating works to me–not because it’s good, but because it’s so weirdly flawed and yet so inexplicably compelling. To me, it contains both the best and worst aspects of his writing all at once. Driscoll’s touch would be most welcome.

The Ice Cream Truck From Hell” was originally posted in serial form on Driscoll’s blog. I read it when it was originally published, and I read it again when I bought this collection. It holds up beautifully on re-reading. The atmosphere is marvelous, and the characters–from young Will, the protagonist, to his troubled friend Harold “Doof” Duffy, to Will’s pompous father–are all expertly drawn. Both times I’ve read it, it’s made me think of Bradbury; specifically Something Wicked This Way Comes. The atmosphere of two kids wandering around in an October evening is wonderful, and the sinister ice cream truck and its crew aren’t even the most unsettling elements. Make no mistake; this collection is worth buying for this story alone. 

“The Colour of Magic” is about a young man named Marc, who is forced to share his home with a peculiar tenant while his mother is away. The strange lodger does nothing overtly threatening, and seems to be just a dreamy lover of incense and yoga, until she asks Marc to help her paint her room, at which point it becomes clear she is acquainted with far more esoteric forms of mysticism. It reminded me a little of Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann–the mysterious older person who is clearly in touch with something far beyond the everyday. Beautifully written, of course, and leaves the reader with just enough information.

“A Howling in the Woods” is about a young boy abandoned in the woods by his father when he hears a mysterious noise. Eventually, he is found again, but not after some strange transformation has taken place. There’s a bit of an environmentalist message to it, although everything is left very ambiguous. But the atmosphere is once again first-rate.

“The Glamour” is about a middle-class teenaged girl who becomes convinced she was switched at birth with the daughter of a posh family. Her obsession with confirming this notion leads her to an even more surprising discovery. This was really well done–at first, it felt like it could just be a YA story about a girl whose imagination had run away with her. But, as is so often the way in Driscoll’s stories, there’s more to it than meets the eye…

“The Blue Rose” is set in a society that seems to have been created after some dimly-remembered cataclysm. Deon is an artist who wishes to create a blue rose for an important ceremony, and he ventures outside the protective city limits and into the dangerous “blasted lands” to do it. The world of this story is first rate, and I’d be delighted to read more set in this place. Like “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell,” I’d read this before in another collection, but happily re-read it. It struck me on second reading that it really is about art, and the risks artists must take to make it. Creating art involves a kind of danger, if not generally the physical kind depicted here. To make something great is to run a risk, and often involves sacrificing a bit of oneself.

“The Deliverer of Delusions” is not actually the last story in the collection. It comes between “Witch House” and “Ice Cream Truck.” I presented all the others in the order the author arranged, but I had to save this one for last, because it’s a sequel to “The Repairer of Reputations,” by Robert W. Chambers.

Longtime readers probably know that I consider “Repairer of Reputations” to be the greatest work of weird fiction I’ve ever read. It’s simply perfect–spare, yet layered with fascinating ambiguities. It doesn’t overwhelm you with weirdness, it doesn’t announce its weirdness ahead of time, nor does it play it out too long and let it become mundane or tiresome. It gradually sinks its claws into you, and by the time you even notice something strange is going on, you’re in too deep to get out. It’s just a masterpiece.

I won’t say any more about it. If you like weird fiction–and you’re reading this blog, so you probably do–you should read it. Try not to read anything more about it before you read it, if you can. It’s important to go in with as few pre-conceived notions as possible.

So! That’s my take on “Repairer of Reputations.” Naturally, the idea of a sequel by a different author, even one as supremely gifted as Audrey Driscoll, filled me with trepidation. Can anyone write a sequel to another author’s work? A good story is like a distillation of a writer’s vision. Properly done, it conveys a whole mental image built up gradually in the synapses of an author’s brain. Can another author presume to match the resulting gestalt so perfectly? Should they? 

I have to be very careful what I say here, because I’m trying not to spoil either story. So, I’ll just say that “Deliverer of Delusions” is a worthy sequel to “Repairer of Reputations.” In fact, it adds on another layer to the original tale that I had never considered. Is it as good of a story? In my opinion, not quite. (It’s much shorter, for one thing.) But it follows the ancient principle “first, do no harm,” and detracts in no way from its legendary predecessor, and will be an enjoyable treat for fans of Chambers’ original story. But do read the original before you read this one! I must insist upon this; to do otherwise is simply a disservice to both stories.

Those are my reviews of all the stories in this collection. And yet, I feel my work is not done here. I’ve spoken of the trees, but not the forest. A proper collection of stories is more than the sum of its parts. I have compared Driscoll to Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Chambers–and she is certainly worthy of being mentioned alongside them. 

But it is unfair to her to merely say she writes admirably “in the manner of…” Driscoll’s style is uniquely hers. Reading this collection made me appreciate this more than ever. As I said above, stories are distillations of a vision, and a collection of stories is a window into an author’s mind; the creative world they inhabit that enables them to turn the everyday–an overheard distortion of Brahms’ “Lullaby,” for instance–into a whole world, complete with people and stories and history and mystery. 

It’s become a cliché to say that all of <some group of fictional works> take place in the same shared universe. But that’s true for authors. In some sense, all of an author’s works take place in a universe that exists within their head.

And the greats, like Driscoll, can take us to that universe and introduce us to the people, show us the color of the sky and let us smell the air. We come back again and again, and feel like we carry some part of the place around with us even when we leave. Tales from the Annexe transports you to a world of horror and mystery, magic and wonder. It’s a must-read.

WishboneYes, you read the year correctly. This is not in chronological order.  I saved the best for last. 

Wishbone, for those not in the know, was a children’s TV series about a talking Jack Russell terrier (voiced by Larry Brantley) who imagined himself in various classic works of literature. There was also a series of books based on the concept, and I’ve blogged before about the impact the Wishbone adaptation of le Fanu’s Green Tea had on me as an impressionable youth.

But this episode of the show takes the (dog) biscuit for greatest Wishbone-related Halloween memory in my childhood. The opening sequence, showing Wishbone the dog trotting through his hometown of Oakdale, makes me instantly nostalgic for the sidewalks of my own small hometown in October, when the leaves change and the kitschy decorations come out. Wishbone’s narration says it all:

“It’s late October, and everything seems just a little different… something strange is in the air. Something chilling. What could it be? Leaves are learning to dance… sheets are learning to fly… and pumpkins are suddenly growing faces! No doubt about it; there is something in the air. Something that makes people do the strangest things…”

Also, before I get going on the plot synopsis, can I just say how much I love this sweater worn in the opening scene by Ellen, (Mary Chris Wall) the mother of Wishbone’s teenaged owner, Joe (Jordan Wall)? Does it surprise you much to learn that I can’t resist a woman in a jack-o’-lantern sweater?

Ellen in a pumpkin sweater

Anyway, on to the story. Joe is nervous about Halloween, because he is superstitious, and fears the day will be bad luck for him. This feeling only worsens when a black cat crosses his path as he’s taking Wishbone for a walk. But that night, his friends Sam (Christie Abbott) and David (Adam Springfield) convince him to join the Halloween scavenger hunt sponsored by the town’s new sporting goods store. 

Joe’s superstitious anxiety reminds Wishbone of Ichabod Crane, and we now are transported to the world of Wishbone’s imagination, where he envisions himself as the protagonist of Washington Irving’s short story.

Let me pause for a moment. Here are some establishing shots of the location meant to be Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow that they use in this episode:

ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION, HOLLYWOOD PEOPLE WHO BLEACH THE COLOR OUT OF EVERYTHING?

Seriously, you would think Hollywood literally believes color didn’t exist until color film was invented. Go back and see my review of the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow and look at the stills. Now tell me which one better resembles Irving’s description in the original:

“It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day, the sky was clear and serene, and Nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet…

…As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly Autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples—some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies…”

A 1997 children’s program starring a dog was able to do a better job of establishing atmosphere than a Hollywood production starring A-listers made a couple of years later. Think about that.

Joe reluctantly joins his friends on the scavenger hunt, where they find themselves competing against the school bully and the series’ running “villain” Damont Jones, and his annoying cousin Jimmy. 

Wishbone Cast
David (Adam Springfield), Sam, (Christie Abbott) and Joe (Jordan Wall) on a Halloween adventure.

After solving riddles that lead them to challenges like shooting galleries, toy racetracks, and an incredible Rube Goldberg machine, Joe, Sam and David find that the last leg of their journey takes them to an abandoned old house where, as young boy, Joe was frightened by a pair of mysterious glowing eyes looming at him out of the doorway.

Swallowing his fear, Joe follows his friends in. Damont has already gone inside, leaving Jimmie outside, shivering and repeating “He went in, but I’m not goin’ in,” in a super-creepy way. 

All this while, Wishbone has been imagining himself in the role of Ichabod, as he confronts his own worst supernatural nightmare. The adaptation is, as always on Wishbone, done gamely by actors who performed their roles far better than they needed to. Special shout-out to Baltus Van Tassel, who mutters, as he looks around at the autumn wind rustling the leaves, “There’s quite a brew stirring this evening.” Love the way he delivers this line. 

The great thing about Wishbone was that the writers almost never sugarcoated major plot elements in the stories, even though they were adapting them for children. Wishbone-as-Ichabod still gets a flaming jack-o’-lantern flung at him by the Horseman.  Admittedly, it’s just a hokey CGI jack-o’-lantern, but still, they weren’t pulling any punches. Likewise, they preserve the ambiguity of Irving’s original tale as to whether it really was a ghost, or just an elaborate prank.

The real-life plot with Joe, Sam, and David has a much happier ending, as our heroes emerge triumphant from the house, and Joe realizes that all along, the thing that had scared him in the old house was just that pesky black cat, which they see running out of the house. 

Everyone heads off for a party at the sporting goods store—but we catch one last glimpse of the old house that suggests maybe the eyes didn’t belong to the cat after all…

I’m sure there is a degree to which my impression of this show is colored by rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. But really, I just can’t imagine not finding it to be an enjoyable seasonal treat. It’s got just the right balance of fun, spookiness and mischief needed for a good Halloween story. And it’s designed to teach kids about reading. Not just how to read, but how to get the most out of reading—by seeing how stories you read are relevant to your own life. That was the real magic of the Wishbone series, and it’s on full display here. It’s a show about imagination, and to my mind, that’s what Halloween is all about, too. It’s a celebration of what we like to imagine might be out there in the darkest of forests after midnight; a holiday all about fantasy and mystery and magic. 

AngelThis short story is a modern tale of un-dead horror. I won’t spoil exactly what type of monster is involved, but readers will probably be able to guess. There’s a clever twist on some classic mythology that enables three high school kids to do battle with an ancient evil.

There are elements of dark comedy as well as horror. And despite its brevity, Abbott gives us more than enough info to care about the characters, and even weaves in a sort of redemptive arc for one of them. 

The text is supplemented with excellent illustrations by Kate Whitmore that provide a face to go with the name for several characters.

This is darker and gorier than Abbott’s other short story, Harvest, but both of them are very good in their own ways. There are plenty of references to classic horror stories and films in this one that fans of the genre will surely appreciate. All in all, a great short story for the Halloween season.

masque 1This film is based on the famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time to do so. Don’t worry; it’s very short, and it’s one of the greatest stories ever written.

The film begins with an old woman gathering firewood in a bleak landscape when she encounters a strange figure clad entirely in red. And right away, we suspect there is something odd going on, because Edgar Allan’s story makes no mention of any peasant women gathering wood. 

The figure in red hands the woman a rose, and tells her to take it to her village and inform them that their day of deliverance is at hand.

She returns to the village, just as the wicked Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is arriving. The people of the village live in poverty as Prospero reigns over them. Two of the village men, Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green), stand up to Prospero, and he is on the point of having them executed when Francesca (Jane Asher) pleads for clemency. Just then they are interrupted by a scream, and Prospero and his guards find the old woman who brought the prophecy of deliverance has died of the plague known as the Red Death. Prospero leaves the village, orders his men to burn it down, and takes Ludovico, Gino and Francesca as his prisoners.

Masque 2

Again, I can’t stress this enough: so far, almost none of this has any relationship to Poe’s story. We have a guy named Prospero and a thing called the Red Death, but otherwise it might as well be a different story.

Could it be because Poe’s story is 14 paragraphs long and takes about ten minutes to read? Maybe it’s not ideally suited for a 90-minute film? Well, as we’ll see, the writers came up with, um, creative ways of dealing with this problem. 

Come to think of it, Poe’s story didn’t mention any naked women in bathtubs either, but that’s what we get next: Francesca is taken to the chambers of Prospero’s mistress, Juliana (Hazel Court) and stripped not only of her peasant garb, but of the cross which she wears around her neck. Prospero orders her to remove this symbol of a “dead god.”

Prospero and Juliana are in the habit of holding orgiastic Court balls, at which Prospero orders the guests to abase themselves in various ways, such as imitating animals–he commands a man to crawl like a worm and woman to walk on her hands and knees in imitation of a donkey. He is a hedonistic, cruel, and in the very worst sense, decadent man.

He is also a Satanist, as we discover through his conversations with Francesca. And a weirdly pragmatic Satanist at that. The world is cruel, he reasons, and so there can be no God of Love, as described in the Christian tradition. But his conception of the deity is not as a God of Hate, but rather one of “reality.” The world is full of evil, and thus must be ruled by evil, according to Prospero’s thinking. As he explains:

“The world lives in pain and despair, but is at least kept alive by a few dedicated men. If we lost our power, chaos would engulf everything.”

This is the best Vincent Price performance I’ve ever seen, precisely because he’s so calm, so almost rational, in the way he explains his malignant philosophy. With Price, there was always a hint of a wink to the audience that he knew this whole thing was a bit silly anyway. That element is still here in his performance as Prospero, but instead of seeming like a trait of the actor, it seems like one of the character. It’s as if, as he lives out his nihilistic beliefs, he’s come to see it all as a meaningless joke. Which makes him all the more terrifying. And here we do at last see some overlap with Poe’s story, wherein he writes of “the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests.”

Speaking of jests, now’s as good a time as any to bring up the fact that there is a sub-plot running through this film that’s based on another Poe story, Hop-Frog. There’s a jester called Hop-Toad who seeks revenge against one of the other royals at Prospero’s court. It’s a weird story that doesn’t add a lot, although it’s not wholly out of step with the rest of the piece. I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s just weird. But then, this is weird fiction, right?

Anyway, Juliana has grown jealous of the attention Prospero is giving Francesca and so she…

Actually, wait. First, let me give you more background on Juliana. She’s already asked to join Prospero’s cult. She’s been engaging in various Satanic rituals with him, including branding herself with an inverted cross. So, what do you think she does to Francesca?

That’s right! She gives her the key to the dungeon where Gino and Ludovico are being held and tells her the outer guard has been bribed so they can escape. They flee from the dungeons, Gino and Ludovico stabbing a few guards as they go. They reach the castle exterior, but are met there by Prospero.

Francesca’s first thought is “Juliana betrayed us,” which is what I assumed too, but then Prospero snarls that Juliana betrayed him. To me, this says that Juliana really was trying to help. And I have to ask… why? It seems rather out of character. Seems to me Juliana would have been more likely to arrange some unfortunate accident for Francesca.

This is the midpoint of the movie. The three good characters are recaptured, seemingly with no hope for escape. Prince Prospero is devising more cruel tortures for them, while preparing for his grand masquerade ball. So, naturally I’m going to pause to talk about dramatic tropes.

In many ways, this movie is just a classic Gothic melodrama, of the sort that had been a cliché for over a century: the evil nobleman kidnaps the innocent maiden and must be stopped by the brave hero. This is such a well-worn trope that it practically exists only as a parody of itself. W.S. Gilbert was making fun of how silly it was about 90 years before this film was made.

Poe’s story, on the other hand, is not at all a stock melodrama. It has no heroes. It has no virginal maidens. It barely even has a plot. It has instead a series of strange and expertly-rendered scenes, which vividly impress themselves upon the mind of the reader, creating an uncanny mood of despair. I very rarely go in for symbolist interpretations of fiction, but here? The colors of the different rooms in the Prince’s castle, the chiming of the great clock of ebony, the Red Death itself–all point to a story being told on a level beyond rationality and firmly in the realm of allegory.

It’s pretty normal for film adaptations to make a story much more formulaic than the book it’s based on. Often, there’s not as much time for all the details and nuances of a book in a film. In this case, it’s probably more to do with the fact that audiences expect a typical three-act structure with recognizable heroes and villains. A truly faithful adaptation of Poe’s story would be a weird art film that no one would understand. Studio execs would never give funding for that. They want a film with good guys and bad guys and blood and near-naked ladies and sword fights!

But here is where it gets interesting. A typical story would just be adapted into the formula and everything that made it different or interesting would stripped out. The result is a film that’s dull and predictable. Not quite with Masque of the Red Death though. This one is so weird that it actually resisted the formula and stayed weird anyway. In fact, it might be even weirder because of this strange mashup of Gothic tropes, the eerie imagery of Poe’s original story, and a dash of psychedelic 1960s Satanism thrown in.

For an example of the last, I give you the scene in which Juliana pledges herself to The Evil One. She takes a drink of something, and then has a hallucination where she is strapped to an altar while bizarre demonic figures dance around her and make thrusting and stabbing motions at her while she writhes in terror. Gosh, I wonder if this was meant to symbolize anything? (Rosemary’s Baby was made four years later, in case you were wondering. The 1960s was a good decade for the Prince of Darkness’s cinematic career.)

After this vision ends, she considers herself betrothed to the Devil. And then for some reason she gets pecked to death by a falcon of Prospero’s that hangs around the giant clock. The guests are horrified on discovering her body, but Prospero only smirks, “Celebrate for Juliana–she’s just married a friend of mine.”

Some readers may be aware that I don’t enjoy fiction that depicts violence against women, and it’s a testament to just how cheesy the special effects here are that I was able to watch this. The hallucination scene is creepy but vague enough I could handle it. The bird attack is simply ridiculous.

In the meantime, Prospero has devised a challenge of poisoned daggers for Gino and Ludovico, since they refuse to fight one another to the death. The challenge results in Ludovico’s death and Prospero bizarrely letting Gino flee into the countryside, on the assumption that he too will be killed by the Red Death raging outside the castle walls.

In the desolate forest, Gino meets the Red-robed figure from the opening scene, who gives him a Tarot card. He then goes on to find the few survivors of the plague-riddled village making their way to Prospero’s castle to seek sanctuary. Care to guess how that works out for them? Put it this way: at the end of it, all of them are executed by Prospero’s crossbowmen except for one child, who is left to wander outside the walls.

And now at last Prospero’s masquerade begins. The Prince himself appears to be dressed as Omar Sharif’s character from Lawrence of Arabia. Who wore it better?

There is only one rule at the Prince’s debauched orgy: no one is to wear red. Anything else goes, including Hop-Toad setting one of the guests on fire. Like the man said, “to whom life and death are equally jests…”

Gino has managed to scale the walls of the castle, where he again meets the figure in red, who tells him to wait outside, and he will send Francesca out to him. This has to be a moment of mixed emotions for Gino–here he was, all set to be the hero of the piece, and he gets told to stand and wait by some mysterious apparition. We don’t see him again for the rest of the film. This is what I mean about Poe’s weirdness beating the formula.

When Prospero sees the figure in red moving among the revelers, he pursues him through the colored rooms, until at last reaching the black room, where he bows before the figure, believing him to be Satan himself. The red figure declares it is time for a new dance to begin–a “dance of death.” At which point, all the guests die of the Red Death, but continue to dance.

The Red figure sends Francesca outside, and then tells Prospero that he is not Satan, nor a servant of his, for “Death has no master.” Further, “Each man creates his own God for himself – his own Heaven, his own Hell,” he tells Prospero, who then demands the figure unmask, revealing the face underneath the hood to be Prospero’s own, only covered with blood. In terror, the prince tries to flee, but is blocked by the bloody corpses of his guests and finally crumbles into death near his own black Satanist altar, at the hand of the Red figure.

The final scene is an epilogue of sorts, revealing the Red figure again in the desolate forest from the beginning of the film, playing with the young child abandoned outside the castle. More robed figures in different colors appear, each telling of how many they have claimed that night. The red figure pronounces that only six remain alive in his territory: the child, Francesca and Gino, Hop-Toad and his lover, and an old man. “Sic transit gloria Mundi,” the figure murmurs, and then they file off in a funereal procession, and the credits roll.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Poe’s story is an allegory for the inevitability of death. The Masque of the Red Death is frequently used in high schools to teach how allegory works because it’s such a slam-dunk; you can’t miss it.

But is that also the theme of the movie? I’m not sure. Moreover, I don’t think the people who made the movie were sure.

There are a lot of mixed messages in this movie. Francesca, Ludovico and Gino are pious and devoted Christians–except, as Prospero points out, Ludovico and Gino both kill guards in their attempt to escape, which by their own religion is a sin. Shouldn’t they have been willing to be martyred instead, like the early Christians executed in the Roman arena? And Francesca ultimately is willing to pledge herself to Prospero, if he will spare Gino’s life. Is this not a betrayal of her faith?

Maybe not. After all, Gino and Francesca are spared the Red Death, and Ludovico dies a noble death confronting Prospero. But why are they spared? Is it really due to their faith or the quality of their character? The hooded spirits at the end don’t seem to be passing moral judgments. They’re just killing some people and sparing others; and their reasons for doing so are ambiguous.

And then of course, there are all of Prospero’s carefully-crafted arguments for Satanism that go strangely unanswered. Like:

Prospero: If you believe, my dear Francesca, you are… gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease and Death! They rule this world.

Francesca: There is also love and life and hope.

Prospero: Very little hope I assure you. No. If a god of love and life ever did exist… he is long since dead. Someone… something, rules in his place.

I am the furthest thing from a religious scholar, to be clear. And yet, I think even I know the proper Christian response to this, which is that the Kingdom of God is separate from the material world, and the virtues of Christianity are rewarded in the next world, not in this one. But Francesca doesn’t say that. She just says she has no learning and thus can’t answer the prince’s arguments. 

It’s a longstanding tradition in fiction that the villains always get the best lines, but Prospero gets to make the case for his literally hellish philosophy, and nobody ever rebuts it. You might think the avatar of the Red Death itself would, but it doesn’t. It seems to be, as another highly-questionable philosopher would say, “beyond good and evil.”

Thematically, the movie just can’t make up its mind as to whether it’s supposed to be a traditional morality play or a morally nihilistic grotesquerie. You think it’s going one way, and then it goes the other. It’s… weird. 

This is a good adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death in spite of itself. Even for all the melodrama, the pointless Hop-Toad sub-plot, the hammy acting, and the special effects that aged quite poorly, it still leaves you with that feeling of uncanny, despairing fear that Poe’s story gives you. You feel like you’ve walked right to the edge of some sketchy borderland between stock melodrama and something else that is quite unusual, rather interesting, and very unsettling. Going back would be boring, going much further would be terrifying.