Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Victorian Fantasy: "The Novel of the Black Seal"

Our penultimate meeting of the Victorian Fantasy discussion group involved Arthur Machen’s 1895 work, The Novel of the Black Seal.

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Sir JJ Drinkwater

The story is actually part of a larger book, The Three Impostors, a work that
incorporates several inset weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three impostors of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London—retailing the aforementioned weird tales in the process—as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: "the young man with spectacles".
Another reviewer describes The Three Impostors as:
Far more of a challenge than your typical novel, this is the story of three men too absorbed by their own literary interests to realise the truth, or otherwise, of the events unfolding around them. These are Dyson, in thrall to his own imagination, Phillipps, an adherent to science, and Russell, who simply considers himself a realist.
Structurally based upon R. L. Stevenson’s ‘New Arabian Nights,’ thirteen chapters here act as anecdotal short stories, delivered to Dyson and Phillipps by supporting characters inveigling upon them their recent plights, and on whom we – and they – must trail to decide upon the truth of their motive and intent.

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Dame Kghia Gherardi

The prologue to Black Seal has a woman, later identified as Miss Lally, discussing the likelihood of the fantastic with Phillipps. She tells him that she was once a rationalist, as Phillipps is, but that her experiences with a Professor Gregg changed her mind. Phillipps implores her to tell the story, which she does.

Miss Lally is a poor but educated woman who moved to London with the intention of finding a job. Unsuccessful at this, she encounters the professor, a widower, who offers her a job tending his children. The professor is a respected man of science, but he has a secret obsession involving a mysterious black stone with unknown characters on it, which he suspects is the key to finding an ancient race of terrible beings - beings that we know through folklore as kinder versions of the truth. He and Miss Lally travel to the countryside where Professor Gregg makes some final deductions before setting off to find these creatures. He disappears, leaving Miss Lally a letter that tells her everything that he has discovered; this letter comprises the last section of the story.

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Your humble scribe

I was unfamiliar with Machen or his work before reading this book, but his style of writing and subject matter reminded me a great deal of H.P. Lovecraft and his “Cthulu” mythos. The ancient creatures, the sense of foreboding, the scientist daring to venture where he shouldn’t - all these elements are fundamental to Lovecraft’s tales. Sir JJ mentioned that Machen knew both Yeats and Lovecraft, and the latter acknowledged Machen as an influence on his writing.

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Miss Ellie Mink

We had a small number of discussants, possibly because of the relative unfamiliar nature of the material. However, as so often seems to happen, the small group was very involved, leading to a good back-and-forth discussion.

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Miss Janet Rhiadra

Several of us were interested enough to declare an intention to sample more of Machen’s work. And enough of the discussion made reference to Lovecraft’s work that Miss Mink declared an intention to read some Lovecraft, so the group clearly enjoys turn-of-the-century horror!

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Miss Herndon Bluebird

Next month, in what I believe is the last meeting for this particular syllabus, we return to William Morris’s The Water of the Wondrous Isles, which was scheduled for some months back but postponed when the group was unable to meet. It’s a lengthy tome, so I hope I can remember enough of it by the time we meet!

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Miss Jessie Darwin

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Miss Amezura, Mr. Gwordn Tripsa, and Miss Finn Nesterennko

Friday, March 21, 2014

Review: Gallifrey, Seasons 1-3

I had earlier thought that Doctor Who audio stories from Big Finish were the end of the rabbit hole of fandom down which I had descended, but I was wrong. Further down, sitting on a metaphorical ledge of their own, is the Gallifrey series of audio stories. Season 1, with four episodes, and Seasons 2 and 3, with five episodes each, each at $8.15, are available on CD only (no downloads), which, with postage to the U.S., makes them a little pricey. Set, of course, in the Doctor Who universe but lacking a Doctor, this series features Lalla Ward’s character Romana, and Louise Jameson’s character, Leela, as unlikely allies in defending Gallifrey from various forms of intrigue. Both are aided by a K-9 unit (Mark I and Mark II, with an amusing rivalry of their own).

As Season 1 opens, Romana has become President of the High Council of Time Lords. Leela, having left the Fourth Doctor’s company on Gallifrey to marry Time Lord Andred, now faces the disappearance of her husband and is disenchanted with the rigidity of Time Lord society. Romana wants to include other species in Gallifrey’s control of time, receiving objections both from those who think the Time Lords should maintain control of timelines and from the “Free Time” movement, those who want time technology available to all. Romana is aided by her mentor Lord Braxiatel, opposed by Inquisitor Darkel, and vexed by Celestial Intervention Agency Coordinator Narvin, among others. As the narrative moves into Seasons 2 and 3, Romana’s rule is threatened and Gallifrey itself comes under attack.

Gallifrey faces various external threats, but the most determined opponents come from within. Time Lord society is filled with opportunists, back-stabbers, power-seekers, and mercenaries. Various characters start aiding one faction, only to switch sides - or appear to switch sides - at an opportune time.

Although some of the plots are interesting and the action is occasionally exciting, the series very much revolves around the political machinations among the Time Lords. It’s House of Cards without a charismatic schemer like Frank Underwood and without the sex scenes (but with lasers and the Matrix). Political junkies might find that more engaging than I did. In my view, a little of that goes a long way.

I was also somewhat put off by the two lead characters. Lalla Ward’s Romana, on television in the 1970s at least, came off as playful and enthusiastic, finding nearly as much delight in her adventures as Tom Baker’s Doctor did in his. Gallifrey’s deeper-voiced Romana exudes world-weariness, impatience with those who disagree with her, and an unseemly desire to maintain power. It’s hard to see the earlier character in the later one. Similarly, Leela - once Eliza Doolittle to the Doctor’s Henry Higgins, enthusiastically soaking up knowledge and culture even as she relies on her “savage” wits to save herself and the Doctor from tight spots - just seems miserable.

The writing occasionally sparkles, with good interchanges among the characters, and K-9’s deadpan delivery and tendency for interpreting statements too literally is as amusing as ever. I only wish that the storyline itself didn’t start sounding so repetitive as the bickering and political maneuvering rolled on.

The series continues with Seasons 4, 5, and 6. I have other audio adventures in my queue, so I don’t have to decide for a while whether to continue on with Gallifrey. The completist in me wants to finish what I started, but another part is indifferent to what comes next.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: Broadchurch

I had planned to write a more extensive piece, but, as often happens, time got away from me, so a few words will have to do.

A month or so back I finally got around to watching Broadchurch, the brief British crime serial starring David Tennant as Detective Inspector Hardy, and Olivia Colman as Detective Sergeant Miller. Among the cast is Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who’s Rory Williams, as the pastor of a local church. The story involves the murder of an eleven-year-old boy, Danny Miller, in the seaside town of Broadchurch, where DS Miller lives. She is upset when an outsider, Hardy, is brought in to head the investigation.

Broadchurch is less about solving a crime, though they eventually get around to it, than a show about the shameful secrets in a small town - secrets that inevitably come out during a police inquiry - and the varying ways people react to a terrible crime. David Tennant, as DI Hardy, shows his amazing range as an actor. (Rory is still Rory, though.) Hardy has his own secrets, and his time to solve the crime, and perhaps atone for an earlier botched prosecution, is running short.

Everything is wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion in a mere eight episodes, though the series (minus Tennant) will return for a second season with, one assumes, a new crime. I like shows that stretch beyond the limits of a single episode but that have a definitive end. (The ABC evening soap opera Revenge and the CBS adaptation of the Stephen King novel Under the Dome are both examples of a decent concept that should have ended after a certain number of episodes but were instead extended beyond what the concept could support.) The British seem to have an easier time making these kinds of shows than do the Americans, though I suppose it remains to be seen how Broadchurch will fare in a second season.

Speaking of bad American ideas, Broadchurch is being remade for the U.S., with the show renamed Gracepoint. Tennant - with his Scottish accent? - will again star in the production, with Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn to replace Olivia Colman. I’ll likely watch it, though I do question why such a remake was necessary. It wasn’t as though Tennant needed subtitles. Well, not too often.

At any rate, this was a very enjoyable eight hours of television.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Winter Rolls On

On the bright side, we got less snow than was predicted, a nice change from the last time around. Still, shoveling snow in March doesn’t seem right.

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The snow doesn’t completely cover the shrubs!

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On the other hand, it’s still a snowy mess

At least local businesses, schools, and the government (including the Feds) had the good sense to close for the day. Tomorrow morning may be adventurous, however...