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Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies.
  –  Robert W. Chambers

Tomorrow is May Day, and today May Eve; though the tradition has waned in the past century, it was once viewed in the same way as Halloween: a night for ghosts, haunts and dark doings.  In my first column for the occasion I shared my list of the ten scariest short stories, and in last year’s column the scariest TV show episodes I’ve ever seen.  This year, I present thirteen main selections (five movies, two poems, one television miniseries, four short stories and a fairy tale) plus a few lagniappe items, ranging from the fun to the beautiful to the horrifying; most can be described by two or even all three of those adjectives, and I doubt many of you will be familiar with all of them.  I’ve provided PDF copies of all the tales and poems, and links to view or buy the shows.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)  A group of ambitious Lovecraft fans asked themselves, “What if his most famous story had been adapted for the screen shortly after it was published in 1928?”  The result may be the best of all Lovecraft film treatments, especially if you can appreciate silent film.

ChristabelChristabel (1816) is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sadly-unfinished poem of a lesbian vampire.  Though it has other complexities of theme, it is this overt meaning which has had the strongest resonance; J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872) is basically a prose adaptation of it, and the lesbian vampire motif has appeared in many movies from Dracula’s Daughter  (1936) to the present.

The Kingdom (1994) Lars von Trier wrote and directed this bizarre Danish miniseries of ghostly, psychic and otherwise-weird goings-on at a super-modern hospital built on what was once a haunted bog.  Steven King adapted it for American television a decade later, with predictably piss-poor results; the original is much, much better.

Kwaidan (1964)Kwaidan is Masaki Kobayashi’s gorgeous film version of four Japanese ghost stories translated by Lafcadio Hearn.  The word “unforgettable” is badly overused in movie advertising copy, but this is one time it’s richly deserved.

Man-size in Marble (1893) by Edith Nesbit used to be very common in horror anthologies; it was one of the first horror tales I can remember reading, certainly before the age of ten.  But since it isn’t as commonly collected as it used to be, some of my readers may be unfamiliar with this chilling little example of the traditional English ghost story.

The Monster Club (1981) is one of the strangest and most uneven films ever made.  Vampire Vincent Price brings horror writer John Carradine to a London nightclub whose members are all humanoid monsters, and there tells him three stories: one sad, one absurd and one horrifying.  There’s also music and a stripper.  Don’t take this one too seriously; just enjoy the weirdness.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)  Though Vincent Price’s performance as the mad sculptor in House of Wax (1953) was superior to Lionel Atwill’s in this original version of the story, this two-strip Technicolor gem is better than the remake in almost every other way.  I especially love Fay Wray as Lois Lane prototype Charlotte Duncan, the ambitious and hardheaded “girl reporter” whose curiosity leads her to the brink of a gruesome fate.

Psychomania (1973) is another oddball British horror movie in which a sorcerer’s son turned motorcycle gang leader discovers how he and his followers can become undead, and after they do they embark on a reign of terror only his mother can stop.

The Tongue-Cut Sparrow was my favorite fairy tale as a wee lass; I must’ve asked Maman to read it to me hundreds of times.  You may wonder why a fairy tale is on a horror list, until I tell you it’s a Japanese fairy tale; if you still don’t get it, read the story.  Yes, I was a strange child.

The Vampyre (1819) is the only other surviving product of the famous “ghost story” contest between the Shelleys and Lord Byron that rainy summer on Lake Geneva.  Though Frankenstein eclipses it in every way, Dr. John Polidori’s entry (based on a plot by Byron) is the first known vampire short story in English, and influenced all which came after it.

Pauline and the MatchesThe Very Sad Tale of the Matches (1845)  Germany is probably the only country whose children’s literature is more horrific than that of Japan; I’m sure most of you are aware of what the original un-Disneyfied Grimm’s fairy tales are like.  Heinrich Hoffmann was a psychiatrist who wrote a cheery little book (originally for his son) named Der Struwwelpeter, in which minor childhood misbehaviors (such as nose-picking) precipitate horrific punishments (like having the offending fingers cut off by a man with gigantic shears).  This selection from the book has, in my opinion, the most striking disconnect between the tone and language and the awful goings-on therein.

What Was It? (1859) Fitz-James O’Brien wrote only a small number of tales before his untimely death in the American Civil War, but they reveal a talent which might have made him one of the greats had he lived to develop it.  This is the very first example of a story in which there is a creature who is invisible, yet tangible; it is not a ghost but a living being, and its invisibility is ascribed to an undiscovered scientific principle rather than a supernatural one.  If anything, the tale is even creepier because of that.

The Yellow Sign (1895) If you have watched the television series True Detective, you’ve heard references to the Yellow King and the city of Carcosa; both are borrowed from this story and others by Robert W. Chambers, which revolve around a mysterious play called The King in Yellow which brings madness to all who read it (or even own a copy).  Chambers’ work is of very uneven quality, but this one and “The Repairer of Reputations” (also included in this PDF) are outstanding.

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There are nights when the wolves are silent, and only the moon howls.  –  George Carlin, Brain Droppings

Schmucker witch 1911As regular readers know, Halloween is my favorite holiday.  Most of you have probably noticed that I try to do at least a few horror-themed columns every October, and a few even pop up at other times of year.  So in order to help y’all get into the spirit (hee hee) of the season, I’ve collected together everything on Halloween or horror-oriented topics I could think of.  First of all, there are my previous columns for the day itself: “Halloween”, “Samhain”, “All Hallows Eve” and “The Day of the Dead”.  “Moondance”  touches on very similar themes, and they’re also visited in “Saint Death”, in which I introduce you to Mexico’s Santa Muerte, the goddess of death.

One of the great pleasures of the season for me is horror fiction, and I’ve visited the subject a number of times which might surprise readers who don’t know me yet.  “Frightful Films” contains my list of the ten scariest horror movies and my favorite horror movies (which are not the same).  “May Eve” presented my picks for the scariest single episodes of TV shows, and “Walpurgisnacht” the scariest short stories.  I’ve also written quite a few horror shorts myself:   “Dry Spell”, “Friend”, “Mercy”, “Painted Devil”, “Pandora”, “Pearls Before Swine”,  “Ripper”, “Rose”, “The Screening” and “The Trick” all fall solidly into the category, and a few others (such as “Ghost in the Machine”, “Greek God”, “What Gets Into a Man…?” and this month’s “Monopoly”) are at least borderline.  I’ve also linked to two short-shorts from horror master Neil Gaiman, “Feminine Endings” and “Down To a Sunless Sea”, and a video wherein Gaiman explains a new tradition he’s trying to start called “All Hallows Read”.  You can even find two short horror films, “444-444-4444” and “Click”;  John Carpenter’s short spoof of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”; and other seasonal videos in this month’s Links #171, #172 and #173.  My column “Mass Hysteria”  compares the “sex trafficking” panic to that attending the famous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, and links a recording for your listening pleasure; “October Miscellanea” contains an item about horror comics and a listing of shows featuring vampire whores, “My Favorite Halloween Stuff” introduces my favorite monsters, horror novels, Halloween songs and more, and “Eros and Phobos” discusses the link between sex and horror.  Finally, you may like these striking Harry Clarke illustrations from the 1919 edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s  Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and this Poe-inspired short film called “The Boundaries of Life and Death”.

I’ll leave you with this selection of spooky links from previous columns:

Zombie links

Lovecraftian links

General horror links

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Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you’ve a date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul.
  –  Jimmy Kennedy

Ever since my second “favorites” column a year and a half ago, I’ve pondered what I would put in a favorite songs list.  It wasn’t an easy choice; after all, one hears so many more songs in a lifetime than one sees movies or reads books, and one’s feelings about them can change dramatically with mood or time.  So as usual, I had to come up with a few rules to bring the pool of candidates down to a manageable size; I excluded hymns, songs without words, songs in languages I don’t understand, and songs which were (in my mind) inextricable parts of longer works.  I also limited the selections to one per artist (in the case of songs deeply associated with that artist).  The rules made the process difficult, but doable; I had to cut off almost a dozen songs from the first draft, including everything from Jesus Christ Superstar and a Bulgarian folk song I really love.  What I eventually ended up with was a list of 40 twentieth-century popular songs in English, most of which (with several notable exceptions) were first recorded within my lifetime.  I would’ve considered some of these (the ones marked with an asterisk) my “favorite song” at some point in my life or another; the rest are simply ones that, no matter how much time goes by, I always find myself pleased to hear (or find myself singing or humming).

These are presented in alphabetical order with minimal comment except to note the writers and (where applicable) performers I prefer, featuring a few selected videos; if I’ve mentioned the song before, I’ll link the column in which I did.  And if any of you are surprised that a large fraction of these are dark and/or melancholy, you must not have been paying attention for the past three years.

Bette Davis Eyes  (Donna Weiss/Jackie DeShannon; performed by Kim Carnes)
Bohemian Rhapsody*  (Queen)
Born To Be Wild*  (Mars Bonfire; performed by Steppenwolf)
Brown-Eyed Girl  (Van Morrison) (Jeff strongly associated this one with me, so naturally it reminds me of him.)
Can’t Get it Out of My Head  (Electric Light Orchestra) (I like a lot of ELO songs, especially “Turn To Stone” and “Telephone Line”, but this tale of pining edges them out.)
City of New Orleans  (Steve Goodman; performed by Arlo Guthrie) (Sheer poetry set to music; one of the great American classics.)
The Cover of the Rolling Stone  (Shel Silverstein; performed by Dr. Hook) (I can never hear this without smiling and singing along; just good goofy self-deprecating fun.)
Crazy On You*  (Heart) (Probably my favorite rock song of all time.)

Diamonds are Forever  (John Barry/Don Black; performed by Shirley Bassey) (I like “Goldfinger” a lot, too, but this one stands alone better.)
Dreaming  (Blondie) (Blondie is one of my favorite bands so it’s tough to choose only one, but this would have to be it.)
Dust in the Wind*  (Kansas)
Edge of Seventeen  (Stevie Nicks)
Free Fallin’  (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) (Another hard choice because Tom Petty has a lot of great songs, but I think this is the one that sticks with me the most. )
Free Will  (Rush) (What lover of reason and liberty could not like these lyrics?  Good tune, too.)
Hazy Shade of Winter  (Simon and Garfunkel) (I generally don’t like covers as much as the originals, but the Bangles version featured above is an exception.)
I Never Do Anything Twice  (Stephen Sondheim) (Listen closely to the words.  This is from the film The Seven Per Cent Solution.)

Istanbul  (Jimmy Kennedy/Nat Simon) (I loved the original Four Lads version as a child, and was delighted when it was superbly covered by They Might Be Giants in 1990.)
The Logical Song  (Supertramp)
Love Reign O’er Me  (The Who) (A simple song, but one which gives me chills under the right conditions.)
Mr. Crowley  (Ozzy Osbourne) (This one grew on me for years until I included it in one of my stripping routines.  But I’m not a Goth, honestly.)
Mother Russia*  (Renaissance)
Ode to Billie Joe  (Bobbie Gentry) (Of course I love “Fancy”, but this haunting enigma of a song is one of the great ballads of the 20th century.)
Over the Rainbow  (Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg; performed by Judy Garland)
Queen Bee  (Grand Funk Railroad) (I liked it on the Heavy Metal soundtrack, and later it was Jack’s song for me.)

Real World  (Matchbox 20) (One of the few songs of the 90s that inspired me to seek out the album.)
Satisfaction  (The Rolling Stones)
Signs  (Five Man Electrical Band) (A song which has stuck with me for decades and still pops into my head every time I see one of the ubiquitous order-and-threaten placards that deface this entire country.)
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes  (Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach; performed by The Platters)
Stairway to Heaven  (Led Zeppelin) (In case you missed it, Heart did an amazing cover of this song a few months ago.)
25 or 6 to 4  (Chicago) (I’m not really a big Chicago fan, but this is an old favorite I still enjoy.)
Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad  (Jim Steinman; performed by Meat Loaf) (It was extremely hard to pick a favorite Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf song, but this one captures the typical spirit of their oeuvre in a relatively short tune with memorable lyrics.)
Veteran of the Psychic Wars*  (Michael Moorcock; performed by Blue Oyster Cult) (My favorite Blue Oyster Cult song is just about a tie; though this I considered this one my favorite for several years, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is extremely close to it and contains my favorite single line in all of rock, “The door was open and the wind appeared”.)

Vienna  (Billy Joel)
Werewolves of London*  (Warren Zevon) (A great song from a unique artist, and one of the greatest first lines in rock history.)
What a Wonderful World  (Bob Thiele/George Weiss; performed by Louis Armstrong) (Louis Armstrong.  ‘Nuff said.)
What’s Up?  (4 Non Blondes) (This is almost tied with about half of the album from which it comes, especially “Spaceman”; it’s really a shame the group fell apart so quickly.)
Wheel in the Sky  (Journey)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps  (The Beatles) (You know what I said about the difficulty of picking one song for several of the choices above?  Multiply that by six.  I featured this one because it’s badly underrated, but “Eleanor Rigby” is a work of art and I couldn’t exclude it; see the rare 1966 video below.)
Windmills of Your Mind*  (Michel Legrand/Alan & Marilyn Bergman; performed by Noel Harrison) (This was my favorite song when I was 11 or 12; it’s from the movie The Thomas Crown Affair.)
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald  (Gordon Lightfoot) (Yes, another one about death; I’m sure you’re shocked.)

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Bobby didn’t want to come back, Mommy.  –  Dead of Night

Tomorrow is May Day, halfway around the year from Samhain; today is therefore May Eve, a springtime counterpart of Halloween.  As I explained in last year’s column for the occasion, “the night was…believed to be one on which spirits walked abroad, and…bonfires were [used] to keep them at bay…though it’s become less common in the past few decades, 19th and early 20th century horror stories often depicted dark doings taking place on April 30th.”  Last year I shared my picks for the ten scariest short stories of all time, and back in October of 2011 I shared my list of scariest horror movies; today I’m going to sort of combine the two and give you a list of video equivalents of short stories, in other words my picks for some of the scariest TV episodes I’ve ever seen.

Notice I didn’t say “of all time”; when I decided to do the list, I immediately realized that any list I could create would be like an antimatter version of the ridiculous lists created by twenty-something-year-old entertainment journalists, in which “of all time” actually means “since 1984”.  Since I stopped watching commercial television in 1980, broadcast television in the mid-‘90s and virtually all new television in 2003, my experience is as skewed as that of those young critics for whom the word “cheesy” usually means “anything in black and white or without digital effects.”  But just as I was about to give up on the idea, I realized it didn’t matter; many of my younger readers may not know of most of these selections, and I suspect even my older readers may be unfamiliar with some of them.  So without further ado, I present my top nine (and a few honorable mentions), listed in chronological order by original air date.

1)  One Step Beyond, “Vanishing Point (February 23rd, 1960)

Unlike its contemporary The Twilight Zone, this show featured dramatizations of reports of psychic phenomena and other weird happenings; sometimes the real people who claimed to have experienced them actually appeared on camera in an epilogue.  Regardless of one’s opinion of the veracity of these accounts, they made captivating television and, thanks in large part to the directorial talents of John Newland and haunting music by Harry Lubin, many are as creepy as anything ever to appear on the small screen.  In this one, a man is tried for the murder of his wife after she vanishes without a trace…and after he is acquitted for lack of evidence, his research discovers that she wasn’t the first mysterious disappearance in the house’s history.  HM:  “The Forests of the Night

2)  Thriller,The Grim Reaper (June 13th, 1961)

William Shatner - The Grim ReaperThis effective tale of a haunted painting stars William Shatner; those who only know him as an action star or an elderly self-parodist may not realize that before Star Trek, he often played psychologically-disturbed young men tormented by internal (or external) demons.  His most famous role of this type was of course in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, but other examples include “Nick of Time” (The Twilight Zone), “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” (The Outer Limits) and “The Hungry Glass” (earlier in this season of Thriller).  Considering that the latter two stories are honorable mentions in this list and the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold” (like “The Grim Reaper”, written by Robert Bloch) has a few horrific moments as well, that actually makes Shatner – an actor not generally associated with horror – the name appearing most often in this column.

3)  The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life (November 3rd, 1961)

Anthony FremontThough this series scored a very high number of brain-searing episodes, this tale of an amoral six-year-old with godlike powers edges out all the others in my estimation.  Its power to haunt is attested by the fact that there have been at least two attempts at sequels or remakes designed to paste a happy ending onto the horror, as if to exorcise it from the re-makers’ minds.  Honorable mention:  “And When the Sky Was Opened”, based on a Richard Matheson story of the wholly inexplicable and utterly horrifying fate of three astronauts.

4)  The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,Final Escape (February 21st, 1964)

This series was known more for suspense than horror, but sometimes it’s a hard line to draw; the very first episode, “Revenge”, is so shocking it still had impact when remade for the revival series thirty years later.  In my opinion the later, hour-long episodes are not generally as good as the earlier half-hour ones, but this episode about a convict’s attempt to escape from prison is as harrowing as anything which has ever aired.

5)  The Outer Limits, “Wolf 359 (November 7th, 1964)

This series is remembered especially for its monsters, all of which were created with the minimal special effects available on a television budget of the time.  The creature in this one is literally a hand puppet, but in the context of the story (about a tiny artificial planet haunted by a malevolent spirit-like entity), framed with skillful directing and a creepy Harry Lubin score, you probably won’t care unless you’ve sacrificed your capacity for imagination on the altar of CGI.

6)  Night Gallery,The Cemetery (November 8th, 1969)

Night Gallery The CemeteryRod Serling did not produce this series (he was only its host and an occasional writer), and it showed; its quality was far below that of The Twilight Zone, and a few episodes are almost unbelievably bad.  This one, however (from the original pilot movie) is not one of them; it stars Roddy McDowell as a young ne’er-do-well who murders his uncle in order to inherit his fortune…only to find that the old man has no intention of staying put in the grave.

7)  Space: 1999, “Dragon’s Domain (December 5th, 1975)

Dragon's DomainAs I have explained before, this British series is usually mistaken for science fiction because of its conventional sci-fi trappings such as spaceships and laser guns.  But nearly all of its threats are thinly-disguised supernatural ones; they include a ghost, a vampire, an immortal serial killer, possessing spirits, a cannibal race and even an immense entity clearly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Azathoth.  But it’s the tentacled Lovecraftian horror in this episode that gave a generation of young fans nightmares, and the creature itself is only the most obvious scare in a show that gives frissons from start to finish.

8)  Dead of Night, “Bobby (March 29th, 1977)

BobbyAfter Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis went on to produce a number of made-for-TV horror movies (including the pilot for The Night Stalker).  Many people remember Trilogy of Terror, and though the first two stories making up Dead of Night are nothing to write home about, the third part – “Bobby” –  is something else entirely.  Richard Matheson penned this utterly terrifying story of a woman so obsessed with her dead son that she resorts to black magic to get him back, and soon discovers what a truly bad idea that was.

9)  Tales from the Darkside, “The Geezenstacks (October 26th, 1986)

GeezenstacksThough this series was often creepy or spooky (though many episodes were funny, confusing or just irritating), very few episodes were actually scary; this is one of those few, and in my opinion the scariest one (though it’s one of those that gets scarier the more you think about it and talk about it to friends at 2 AM).  The script was adapted from a story by Fredric Brown (notice how some of these names keep popping up in different columns?) about a family who discovers that the daughter’s dolls seem to be predicting everything that happens to them.  HM: “Inside the Closet

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The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…  –  Fredric Brown

As I’ve said many times, I prefer short stories to novels; even when I shared my list of favorite books a year ago, six of thirteen were short story collections.  As I said then, “This is because for me, a large part of the pleasure of a book is the mood it sets, and if that mood is disturbed I can’t enjoy it nearly as much.  Short stories are quickly consumed, and even novellas or short novels can be read in one extended sitting…When I started whoring the long-established preference for short fiction grew even stronger, because I knew that at any moment I might be interrupted by a phone call from a client and have to run off.”  But despite this preference (or perhaps because of it), choosing a list of favorite short stories was even more difficult than choosing my favorite books.  Last May Eve I provided my list of the ten scariest short stories, and I’ve excluded those from this list along with all stories which are included in any of my favorite books (which means everything by Doyle, Lovecraft and Poe).  I also excluded fairy tales because, though I love them dearly, they’re really a different genre (and one I will visit in a future column).

Because most of these are quite well-known and highly regarded, and none of them were published after I was born, I was able to secure PDFs of all but two.  There was a PDF of #7 as well, but it was so poorly formatted that the ends of most lines were cut off on the right side; I therefore decided not to provide it, but if someone can locate a proper copy I will.  You will note the majority of these are quite short; three of them qualify as short-shorts, and only two are novelettes.  But since y’all know my own fiction is primarily in the short-short format, that shouldn’t surprise you.  All of these are either fantasy, science fiction, horror or suspense except for #3, which is essentially psychological horror (as is #5).  They all have something else in common: all are unique and highly memorable.  They are listed here in chronological order.

1)  Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844)

A Woodland Maiden by Emile Vernon (1901)This gothic tale is often listed as one of the earliest works of science fiction, because its premise relies on human experimentation by a mad scientist.  Hawthorne was far more interested in the dark portions of the human soul than in speculation about the nature of the physical universe, but his short stories often explore this by means of some fantastic situation.  Those who recognized this month’s fictional interlude as a tribute to this story are probably unsurprised to see it here.

2)  How Much Land Does A Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

Though he is best known in the English-speaking world for his lengthy novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy also wrote many fine short stories including this fine example of the subgenre the French refer to as contes cruels, stories which are not necessarily supernatural but demonstrate the cruelty of fate and usually conclude with a shocking or horrifying twist.  John Collier and Roald Dahl (see below) also produced many tales of this type.

3)  Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of DarknessA steamboat captain travels up a river in Africa to investigate his company’s trade agent at an outpost in the interior, and discovers that the “Dark Continent” is not nearly as dark as the recesses of the human heart.  Many of you may have studied the story in literature class, and though it has been adapted several times the most famous was Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which transposed the events to Vietnam War-era Cambodia.

4)  Sredni Vashtar” by Saki (1914)

Saki was the pen name of H.H. Munro, a brilliant British author whose career was cut short by a German sniper at the Battle of the Ancre in 1916.  His best work is equal parts horror and humor, and this one – the story of a sickly orphan who creates his own secret pagan cult in his guardian’s shed – is its perfect exemplar.

5)  Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken (1934)

This chilling (no pun intended) tale of a young boy’s descent into madness manages to create a horrifying atmosphere without any of the conventional elements of horror.  In addition to the PDF, I thought y’all might enjoy this short film made for TV in 1966; the same director later remade it as an episode of Night Gallery, narrated by Orson Welles.

6)  Thus I Refute Beelzy” by John Collier (1940)

Many of John Collier’s stories are strange and haunting, but this one more than most.  It’s the tale of a boy whose father, one of those annoying people who makes a fetish of rationalism (think Maureen O’Hara in Miracle on 34th Street), becomes jealous of his new imaginary friend and decides to disprove that friend’s existence once and for all.

7)  With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson (1947)

Some of you may recall that I have referred to this science-fiction warning of the perils of the nanny state once before, in a column which shares its name.

8)  Man from the South” by Roald Dahl (1948)

Man from the SouthMany people who know Dahl from his children’s works such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches may not have realized he also had a talent for marvelously wicked adult stories; he even had his own syndicated TV series, Tales of the Unexpected.  Even before that a number of his stories were adapted for television, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; Hitch’s production of this one starred Peter Lorre as the title character who bets Steve McQueen a new car that he can’t light his cigarette lighter ten times in a row without fail.

9)  The Man Who Traveled In Elephants” by Robert Heinlein (1948)

This was Heinlein’s favorite of all his short stories, and mine as well; I can never read it without tearing up.  Some critics have dismissed it as a “mistake”, an overly-sentimental fantasy in sharp contrast to his usual hard science fiction.  But this is not Heinlein’s only fantasy, nor his only whimsical story, nor his only sentimental one; furthermore, its themes connect it to many of his longer works such as The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, I Will Fear No Evil and The Number of the Beast.

10) The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

Tigers Nest MonasteryClarke is not among my favorite writers; IMHO he’s usually too dry, too self-limited and too obsessed with enormous timescales, and he created his female characters in much the same way Michelangelo did (i.e., by sticking tits onto male figures).  But there are a few times he really surpassed himself, and in my estimation this is the best of them.

11) Space-Time for Springers” by Fritz Leiber (1958)

Don’t make the mistake of dismissing this as the science fiction equivalent of a LOLcat, though at first glance it may appear to be.  Yes, it’s cute; yes, the hero is a kitten behaving in a terribly precious way.  But stick with it, and you’ll find there’s actually a tale of courage, love, duty and sacrifice under that cuddly and apparently superficial veneer.

12) Earthmen Bearing Gifts” by Fredric Brown (1960)

As I mentioned in “My Favorite Authors”, Brown was the absolute master of the short-short story, and though he wrote many excellent longer tales (including the one that was adapted into the Star Trek episode “Arena”) he is today best remembered for his little gems like this terribly sad conte cruel.

13) Sagittarius” by Ray Russell (1962)

SagittariusRay Russell was the greatest 20th-century writer in the Gothic style; when I first read his most famous story, “Sardonicus”, I had to check the copyright page to convince myself that it was not first published over a century earlier.  “Sagittarius” is the second part of a loose trilogy with the aforementioned story (the third part is “Sanguinarius”).  But I’ve always liked “Sagittarius” best for its clever interweaving of the stories of Jack the Ripper, Gilles de Rais, Mr. Hyde and the Grand Guignol Theater; unfortunately I can’t supply a PDF copy, but I own it in Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, which is well worth the pittance you’ll pay for it.

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No human being is innocent, but there is a class of innocent human actions called Games.  –  W.H. Auden

I adore games; I always have and I always will.  And while they aren’t terribly unusual things to be fond of, there are three limiting factors which will give you a better picture of what I’m talking about before we really start.

1)  I don’t really care for games played by oneself.  To me, a game is a social interaction between two or more people rather than something one does to amuse oneself alone.  I’ve never been a big fan of either solitaire or masturbation; they both always seemed a bit pointless to me.  This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with either one, or that I look down on those who enjoy them, or that I didn’t engage in both at times (especially as a teenager, though far less often as the years went by and barely at all after 30); it’s just that, what I’m looking for most in both games and sex is something I can’t get from either myself or a machine.

2)  I don’t care for games in which I’m not a participant.  I find watching other people play games even more dreadfully tedious than I find playing them by myself.  Here again there is a sexual parallel; porn and football leave me equally cold.  Ditto for fight scenes in movies unless there is something else interesting about them (if, for example, there is some witty repartee or at least one of the participants has some unusual abilities).  What I’m looking for most in both games and sex is something that requires direct participation.

Count Zaroff3)  I don’t care for games in which the stakes are either too low or too high.  To me, a game is a safe microcosm of life, a space in which the unfathomable complexities of existence can be distilled into a set of rules which allow win or loss through solving the problems by which the game is defined.  The players of a game based purely on chance (with no skill involved) are nothing more than glorified spectators; the dice roll, the pieces are moved in the only way they can be and the game ends in the same way as it would if different people were playing.  On the other hand, a game in which the stakes are too high is not a game at all; it’s real life, with real consequences.  No, thanks; I’ll leave that sort of thing to the professional gamblers and the Count Zaroffs of the world.

As you can see, these criteria eliminate a large fraction of what most people think of when someone says the word “game” (most prominently gambling, spectator sports and solo computer games).  Of the remaining types, I like most of them – word games, thinking games, card games, board games, role-playing games, etc – and quite enjoy nearly any of them if I like the people I’m playing with.  There are some games at which I’m not really competent to compete (chess, drinking games and most sports fall into that category), and others which are far too complicated for my tastes (tabletop war games come to mind).  But by and large, I learn games very quickly and before too long can offer moderately-experienced players an interesting game.  Of course there are some that, all things being equal, I enjoy more than others, and I’ve divided them into five categories for this discussion.

Children’s Games

Happy Little TrainOf all the field games, my favorite was hide and seek; it’s the only one I still enjoy as an adult, though unfortunately it is rarely suggested in grown-up company (though I did play it on a call once with the client and two other working girls).  I always prided myself on coming up with hiding places nobody else could think of, and on being able to figure out others’ hiding places when I was “it”.  As for children’s board games, when I was very small I was quite fond of Cootie and a race game called The Happy Little Train Game, but since both are games of pure chance I outgrew them quickly (though I still own both and have played them on occasion just for giggles).  The only children’s board game I still enjoy for itself (rather than for its nostalgia value) is Sorry!, a Parcheesi variant in which moves are determined by special cards rather than dice.

Board Games

I’ve already described Switchboard in “My Favorite Things You May Never Have Heard Of”, but I’m sure you’ve heard of my other favorite board game: backgammon, one of the oldest (5000 years or more) games still in existence.  While nearly any competent player can trounce me at chess, I have never met anyone who could consistently best me at backgammon.  I discuss several more board games I enjoy in the next section below.

Thinking Games

TherapyThough I am quite fond of both Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, neither of them occupies quite the place in my favor as good old twenty questions, a game which can be played anywhere with no special equipment at all.  I suppose it’s my librarian’s zeal for classification, but I just love the process of cutting the whole universe down to one specific thing with only twenty well-chosen yes/no questions (for you information theory guys, recognize that’s only twenty bits).  My friend Terrance  was the all-time champ at this; I could pick anything, no matter how specific, and he would be sure to get it.  In one memorable game in my late teens, he was able to arrive at “Raquel Welch’s left nipple” in only about 16 questions.  Another favorite in this category is Therapy, which is similar to Trivial Pursuit in that players must answer questions to collect pegs in different categories; however, the questions are all about psychology and there is a further game mechanic in which players are asked about opinions or life-experiences and other players have to guess what the first player answered.

Card Games

Divine TransformationI  was never a particularly big fan of card games, though as I said above I like them just fine if I like the people I’m playing with.  One of the few fond memories of my marriage to Jack was our friendship with another couple I met through their son, a regular library patron.  Every Friday night for several years we would go to their house, have dinner and then play spades until midnight or later.  It was always the wives against the husbands, and though we always beat the menfolk they never wanted to change the teams (to couple vs. couple or wife-swapping).  I don’t really like cutthroat spades, but I really, really like partnership spades.  The only other card game I would consider a favorite is the first collectible card game, Magic, which Frank taught me after Jack left me at the beginning of 1995 as part of a general strategy of giving me something else to think about other than my myriad problems.  Unlike traditional card games, each player in Magic has his own deck constructed from cards chosen from among thousands (only hundreds when I started) of cards created by the publisher, each with rules that govern the way that card interacts with others; constructing decks is half the fun for me.

Role-Playing Games (RPGs)

D&D kitty 5-25-04Nowadays, many people think of these as games played on a computer, but it originally meant pencil, paper, rulebooks and sitting around a table with friends playing the part of a character one created within the rule structure.  Jeff taught me how to play Dungeons and Dragons just after my 14th birthday, and I was hooked; I was running my own game within a year, and slowly built up so many new rules and rule changes that my version is practically a different game from the official one, now in its 4th edition.  I still enjoy this game more than any other; if I could count every happy hour I spent between the ages of 15 and 30 I have absolutely no doubt the majority were those spent either playing or game-mastering D&D.  Once I started dating my husband I taught him to play, and though his travel schedule has made it difficult for the past few years we still have a (technically) active game going.  I have created several game worlds, two of them extremely elaborate; my story “Empathy” actually takes place in my most complex one, which (if you’re at all familiar with D&D) may give you some idea just how far I’ve gone from the usual sword and sorcery setting.  It isn’t the only role-playing game I really like; Champions (in which one plays a superhero) is a lot of fun as well.  But D&D was my first and greatest love in the RPG multiverse.

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In our family we don’t divorce our men; we bury ’em!  –  Stella (Ruth Gordon)

In common with most people, I like movies.  I don’t pretend to know much about movie criticism, I’m painfully ignorant about directorial techniques and I probably couldn’t recognize a “great” film even if I had a cheat-sheet.  I do, however, know what I like, and can often even tell you why I like it.  I’m not going to claim that any of these films are “great” in the artistic sense, and though I’ve seen several of today’s selections on “great film” lists I don’t like them for that reason.  Despite today’s title, these are not actually my favorite movies; I already listed those in my very first “Favorite Things” column over a year ago.  Other columns have discussed my favorite horror movies, musicals, short films, obscure movies, Christmas movies and monsters and horror stars; this one lists 16 more of my favorite movies that don’t fall into any of those categories (though I did mention #8 in the “obscure movies” column), listed in my usual reverse chronological order.

1)  Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)  What I like best about this movie and its sequel is that they’re unrepentantly dumb.  In other words, they make no pretense to be anything other than good, clean fun.  And while most time travel movies defy logic due to poor writing or failure to think things out, I get the feeling the writers of this one made a list of time travel rules and then broke every one on purpose.  My love for these flicks has rendered me totally unable to take Keanu Reeves seriously no matter what role he plays.

2)  Highlander (1986)  Truly unique movies are rare in modern Hollywood, but this was one; the aesthetic failure of several moronic sequels and a TV series ripoff prove that.  If you’ve never seen it, the trailer is a decent introduction, though I have one major quibble with it (and with the film itself):  the hero’s modern love interest is completely unbelievable and pales into insignificance besides the beautiful depiction of his first marriage, which never fails to reduce me to tears.

3)  Dune (1984)  Yes, I’ve read the book, and I’m aware of how the film departs from it; I’m also aware that Herbert was satisfied with it.  There are three cuts of this movie: the theatrical cut, which leaves out far too much exposition; the extended television cut, which includes the additional material but removes important scenes that were deemed too intense for broadcast, and a combined cut from a region 2 DVD (of which I own a bootleg) which has all the scenes from both theatrical and TV cuts.  The best part about this film is that there were no concessions to modernism chauvinism; the culture is depicted in all its strangeness and political incorrectness.

4)  Star Trek:  The Wrath of Khan (1982)  As I’ve stated before, this and The Undiscovered Country are IMHO the only Star Trek movies truly worthy of the legacy; Khan is the only one which feels directly connected to the series, and in all of Hollywood history it may be the sequel which surpasses its progenitor by the greatest margin (though you’re welcome to make other nominations).

5)  Time Bandits (1981)  Terry Gilliam’s visions are always baroque and usually tinged with darkness (except when they’re absolutely immersed in it), and Time Bandits is no exception.  Though the movie is absolutely hilarious, its portrayal of a chaotic universe ruled by a rather cold and disinterested God is rather like Monty Python meets H.P. Lovecraft, and can be disquieting if one thinks too hard about it.

6)  Serial (1980)  This little-remembered satire of Bay Area ‘70s nuttiness is probably best appreciated by those old enough to remember the time period, and though it doesn’t bear quite as much repeated watching as most of the other titles on the list I still enjoy it every time I see it.  Bonus for horror fans:  Christopher Lee in a very unorthodox comedic role.

7)  Bedazzled (1967)  This isn’t the only film on this list who memory has been sullied by a shoddy remake, but it may be the only one so completely eclipsed by that remake that almost nobody seems to remember the original.  And that’s truly sad, because this one is very funny, very clever, very wicked and very, very British.  Dudley Moore plays a hapless and rather silly short-order cook who sells his soul to the Devil (Peter Cook) for seven wishes and learns about the proverbial “long spoon” over and over again, but the bits between the wishes are actually the funniest.

8)  Lord Love a Duck (1966)  One of the blackest of all black comedies; it would not be out of place on a double bill with Dr. Strangelove, though this one prefers to take pot-shots at a large number of cultural absurdities (often in drive-by mode) while Strangelove is a sustained attack on one target.  The trailer isn’t lying; Roddy McDowell’s character really does commit mass murder (during the opening credits!) and the rest of the movie explains what drove him to it.

9)  Goldfinger (1964)  In a sense, this movie is here as a representative of all the Sean Connery Bond films, but I also feel it would stand on its own merits without the others.  Everything that is right with the series is exemplified in this one, and its problems less apparent here than in other installments; even some of the series’ conventions are lampooned here, but without devolving into self-parody as the later Roger Moore films did.

10)  Bell, Book and Candle (1958)  The lovely Kim Novak is a modern witch who casts a love spell on her neighbor in order to get back at his awful fiancée, an old schoolmate of hers…then finds herself falling in love with him for real.  Though this film was one of the inspirations for Bewitched, the witches here are not semi-godlike but rather just people with an extra talent (stronger in some than others).  The supporting cast is fantastic; of especial interest for readers of this blog is Ernie Kovacs’ character, a writer whose utter ignorance of the witchcraft on which he claims to be an “expert” calls to mind certain self-proclaimed “experts” on prostitution.

11)  Twelve Angry Men (1957)  One set.  Twelve actors.  No special effects.  Virtually all talk and no action.  But if you’re anything like me, it will rivet your attention from start to finish.  One conscientious holdout juror (Henry Fonda) in a murder trial eventually helps the others to recognize the gaps in the prosecution’s case that they at first ignored or did not want to see.  One of those movies that’s more timely now than when it was first filmed.

12)  Rashômon (1950)  The story of a rape and murder in feudal Japan, told from four points of view:  that of the murderer, those of the two victims, and that of a witness the others did not know was there.  This device has since become a trope, and the film’s name practically an idiom, but none have ever done it as well as the original.

13)  Mighty Joe Young (1949)  Though the movie was a conscious imitation of King Kong (and even shared a writer, star and special-effects director), I must admit that I really like it better than its more iconic predecessor.  Joe is a character rather than simply a monster, and thanks to the wizardry of the young Ray Harryhausen his personality really shines through; the audience cares about him in a way we never really care for Kong, and later incarnations of the King have included more than a little Joe in him.

14)  Rope (1948)  An underappreciated Hitchcock adaptation of a 1929 play based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case.  Like Twelve Angry Men, it’s a very “pure” drama: one set, a small number of characters, mostly talk with little action, and designed so as to resemble a stage play as closely as possible.  Beside the masterful buildup of suspense, one of the things I like best about it is its use of very long takes (up to ten minutes each), cut so as to appear like one long, seamless filming.

15) Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)  You’ve probably noticed that I like black comedies, and here’s another one:  Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovers that his elderly maiden aunts are bumping off lonely old men with poisoned wine and burying their bodies in the cellar.  And then there are his two brothers…as Mortimer explains to his new bride, “insanity runs in my family…It practically gallops.”

16) The Thief of Bagdad (1940)  Though I love Arabian Nights movies in general (such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which just barely missed the cut), I have an especial love for this one.  It has been remade several times, but this one is by far the best; if you’ve never seen it, you’ll be amazed at the extent to which Disney plagiarized it for Aladdin.

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