“Upon reconsideration, I concede that candy corn is probably not a vegetable. Go ahead. Take that away from me, too.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 1

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Happy Halloween from Vera and Lida

I haven’t been able to put an exact date on this Halloween card.  I know that, in “Shadows Cast from Behind Me” — the Vera Van Slyke chronicle that’s now posted on my Snazzy Downloads page — Lucille Parsell asks Vera and my great-grandfather to begin referring to her with her Czech pet name, Lida. Perhaps the card was signed before 1904, the date when that adventure took place.

Halloween Card from Vera & LucilleI also know that “Shadows Cast from Behind Me” will be swapped out with another, never before posted Vera Van Slyke ghostly mystery toward the end of this month!

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Tough Love from the Mother of Invention

“I’m starting to suspect that people are starting to suspect that my recent bold color and pattern combinations have been inspired by my desperate need to do laundry.” — Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 5

Posted in Finbar Every Friday: The Tipsy Quips and Rickety Limericks of Finbar Kelly as Remembered by Tim Prasil | Tagged | Leave a comment

Is Willa Cather’s “The Affair at Grover Station” a Work of Occult Detection?

Willa Cather is a key figure in American literature. Be it O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, or The Song of the Lark, her novels have earned a favored place on the bookshelves of many readers, and her short stories — which include “A Wagner Matinee”, “The Sculptor’s Funeral”, and “Paul’s Case” — are often anthologized. In 1922, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours.

I’ve personally been especially interested in her tales of Czech immigrants on the plains, works such as “Peter,” My Ántonia, or Neighbor Rosicky. Those characters remind me of my Czech roots, even though my forebears settled in Chicago, not Nebraska. And in my Vera Van Slyke chronicles, there’s a recurring character named Eric “Rick” Bergson, who moves to Chicago from Nebraska and who seems to have stepped straight out of Cather’s novel about Swedish newcomers on the plains, O Pioneers!

Willa Cather

Willa Sibert Cather (1873-1947)

I re-read My Ántonia in graduate school. I remember trying to determine what Cather was teaching readers when the title Czech immigrant runs off with Larry Donovan — and comes back with an illegitimate child and no husband. Ántonia Shimerda then finds happiness with another Czech immigrant, Anton Cuzak. My first conclusion was that Cather was suggesting it’s best for people to stick to their own kind: Czechs should marry Czechs instead of mixing with, say, Americans presumably of Irish descent.

But more research opened up an alternative interpretation. The notion that immigrants should preserve their ethnic distinctiveness was being bandied about in the early 1900s beside far louder calls that immigrants abandon their cultural backgrounds to assimilate into the dominant, Anglo-American culture. Cultural pluralism — celebrating our nation’s cultural diversity — wouldn’t really take a firm hold until the second half of the century, but Cather can easily be seen as an early advocate of it in her decision to have Ántonia become a successful American by marrying Anton Cuzak and starting a family that stays true to its ethnic roots. I liked that way of understanding the novel much better than the “stick to your own kind” approach.

Recently, though, I read one of Cather’s early short stories. It’s called “The Affair at Grover Station” (1900). I had a very mixed reaction to it. First, I was delighted to find out that Cather not only dabbled in murder mystery — she also dabbled in occult detection! I’d known the author only for her works of realism, but since discovering this story, I’ve learned that at least two of Cather’s other stories have a ghostly quality to them: “The Fear that Walks by Noonday” (1895) and “Consequences” (1915). She liked to tell a spooky story on occasion, it seems.

“The Affair at Grover Station” features a character named “Terrapin” Rodgers, who becomes an amateur detective while confirming that a fellow railroad employee was the victim of murder. Though the investigation proper doesn’t start until well into the story, Rodgers is assigned by his dispatcher to find out why a station agent has gone missing. He surveys the station. He then questions the missing agent’s landlady. He questions a little girl who’d seen him with a stranger whose “eyes snapped like he was mad, and she was afraid of him.” Rodgers next finds blood on the pillow where in the agent slept. All very detective-y.

But the crucial clue in the case comes not from the tangible world. No, the “smoking gun” comes in the form of the victim’s apparition, who manages to use chalk to scratch the designation of the train car where his body could be found. And after the body is found on that very train car, Rodgers notices chalk on the corpse’s hands! A pretty good, old-fashioned ghost story, that.

In fact, it’s very much a spin on the traditional story of a wronged spirit who returns to extract justice and who counts on a living person to both accept the reality of the supernatural and to unravel the ghost’s cryptic message. As such, “Terrapin” Rodgers has taken his place as a novice-detective on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives.

Unfortunately, “The Affair at Grover Station” also has a prime suspect who makes this story very much a part of the Yellow Peril movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. That suspect is a man named Freymark. Cather is far from subtle at signaling him to be the criminal. She has Rodgers say of Freymark:

He was a wiry, sallow, unwholesome looking man, slight and meagerly built, and he looked as though he had been dried through and through by the blistering heat of the tropics. His movements were as lithe and agile as those of a cat, and invested with a certain unusual, stealthy grace.

The ghost of Chinese Exclusion

“A Skeleton in His Closet,” from a 1912 issue of Puck

We learn that Freymark’s father was French and his mother Chinese. Though this makes him bi-racial, of course, we later read that “he was of a race without conscience or sensibilities.” Freymark’s criminal nature is attributed to his Chinese heritage. Though such bigotry was widespread in the U.S., I was sorry to see it in Cather, especially given that Mark Twain, Bret Harte, even Ambrose Bierce were writing stories that — while perhaps not directly sympathetic to Chinese immigrants — were certainly critical of the racism aimed against them. Cather, it seems, could paint immigrants from, say, Sweden or Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) as admirable additions to the national landscape. But, in this story, a half-Chinese immigrant is portrayed as inherently evil.

Needless to say, this is not one of my favorite Cather stories. My hunt for early occult detectives has yielded many surprises, and the fact that Cather is now among the many authors who explored this cross-genre of fiction is certainly intriguing. The fact that it’s made me yet again reassess my appreciation of Cather, though, is disheartening.

NOTE: Shortly after posting this, I found Julia H. Lee’s very insightful essay “The Chinaman’s Crime: Race, Memory, and the Railroad.” With far greater depth than I’ve done here, Lee discusses the nuances of the racial portrait presented in “The Affair at Grover Station.”

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In the Shadow of Rathbone: John Barrymore in Sherlock Holmes (1922/2001)

holmes-basil-rathboneYes, I’m cheating by putting this film with my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films made after the Basil Rathbone series. However, in a way, Sherlock Holmes, starring John Barrymore as the great detective, wasn’t finished until 2001. The film released in 1922 was later lost, but the original, unedited footage was discovered. With a bit of guidance from director Albert Parker, who passed away before the final cut was complete, the film was reassembled. Some footage is still missing. As a result, what we watch today is a new “re-cut” of the movie audiences saw in 1922. Certainly, we watch it “in the shadow of Rathbone.”

Besides, this is my way of celebrating the even earlier, even more interesting Sherlock Holmes film that was recently announced as having been rediscovered. That film stars William Gillette, the man who first brought Holmes to the stage and whose play served as the basis for the Barrymore film.

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow

John Barrymore is a very, let’s say, commercial choice to play Holmes. He does well at embodying the pensive detective and even manages to toss in a few moments of the charater’s familiar flippancy. However, visually, he’s simply too dashing, too chiseled – too John Barrymore – to successfully let us believe he’s Holmes.

Barrymore as SherlockNonetheless, that’s the lure of this film: to see the Hollywood matinee idol and member of one of American theatre’s most illustrious families have a go at playing Holmes. Perhaps when Barrymore appears in the deerstalker cap toward the end, things become a bit silly and strained, but prior to that, the performance is enjoyable. Barrymore, after all, was an accomplished actor, not just a handsome one.

Watching Watson

WatsonBarrymore/Holmes is very much the star of the movie. Watson sits in the background – sometimes literally. Roland Young does fine in what little the role offers, but there’s simply nothing for him to do other than serve as a functionary of plot and exposition. Curiously, after the film’s prologue, which is set during the duo’s college years, Watson’s a married man. While this gives him an iota of characterization, it also helps explain why he’s not really Holmes’s close companion.

Naturally, with Watson’s role so diminished, one doesn’t expect much in the way of an exploration of his relationship with Holmes. In this regard, the film lives up to expectations. Disappointingly.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

There are some nice touches that show familiarity with Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon, be they from Gillette’s play or Earle Browne and Marion Fairfax’s adaptation of it. For instance, the “Sherlock Holmes—his limits” list that Watson offers in Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet is presented in close-up in this film, even though it’s been made Holmes’s own self-assessment. The film focuses on Holmes’s battle with Moriarty, and actor Gustav von Seyffertitz is made up to somewhat resemble the description of “the Napoleon of crime” given in “The Final Problem”:

He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.

There are a few other mysteries and crimes interwoven with this main one. The intricacies of the plot feels true to Doyle, and some of the elements are very similar to specific stories. For instance, the Continental prince who solicits Holmes to retrieve some damaging letters echoes “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

Holmes only fall in this film that features Moriarty has more to do with falling for a woman named Alice.

Holmes’s only fall in this film that features Moriarty has less to do with going over the Reichenbach Falls and more to do with falling for a woman named Alice.

Unfortunately, as will happen in so many Holmes films to follow, the great detective’s relationship with women is given an emphasis not found in the prose works. The film character is also very far from faithful to the one on the page, who’s baffled by — if not terrified by — the opposite sex. Indeed, Barrymore’s Holmes falls instantly in love during that prologue, and he’s still enamored when he re-meets the same woman during his later dealings with Moriarty. As typical of silent-movie melodrama, there’s little reason given why a unique man like Holmes would be so smitten with this woman other than she’s pretty.

But, no, Moriarty doesn’t wind up killing this love interest, launching Holmes’s celibacy. All I’ll say is that the ending is far more Hollywood than Doyle. Well, I will mention that the only really funny exchange between Holmes and Watson happens at the very end.

I don’t recommend that anyone watch this film expecting a great or even a good Sherlock Holmes movie. As I suggest above, it’s much more a John Barrymore movie, and therein lies its appeal. Unfortunately, some of the plot jumps awkwardly, presumably due to the still-missing footage. But it has a few glimmering moments, and as an historical curiosity, the film is worth a look.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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Not Getting the Change You Wish to See in the World

“The affirmation that ‘everything happens for a reason’ loses its sway when applied to a vending machine malfunction.” – Finbar Kelly

Celtic Knot 4

Posted in Finbar Every Friday: The Tipsy Quips and Rickety Limericks of Finbar Kelly as Remembered by Tim Prasil | Tagged | Leave a comment

Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mystery #7: “Shadows Cast from Behind Me”

Vera & Lida Oval on whiteThe Good News: “An Unanchored Man,” the sixth in the series of my Vera Van Slyke ghostly mysteries, has been accepted for publication. It will appear in Occult Detective Monster Hunter: A Grimoire of Eldritch Inquests, a two-volume anthology of brand new occult detective tales that’s to be published in the coming months by Emby Press. I’ve also written the introduction to this pair of books.

The Bad News: This means I’m contractually prohibited from posting that sixth story, the next in the sequence, here.

But I can move on to the seventh chronicle, and it’s a bit different from Vera’s other investigations. In fact, Vera plays very little role in “Shadows Cast from Behind Me.” Instead, her faithful and patient assistant has a vision, one induced by new cinema technology — new, that is, in 1904. Since Vera is preoccupied with reporting on a meat-packer’s strike, Lucille investigates her vision with the help of an old friend.

But are they prepared to correctly interpret Lucille’s vision — or to decide if it’s indeed a vision or a ghostly communication from someone Lucille lost in the past! Visit my Snazzy Downloads page for the link to “Shadows Cast from Behind Me,” available in .pdf, .mobi (Kindle), and .epub formats.

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