Reopening the Marvellous Boxes: Remembering the Martians

The fifth audio play in the Marvellous Boxes anthology let me to lighten up a bit. Well, at least, at first. I confess that listening to “Remembering the Martians” three years after its debut made me chuckle — in a good way. From ruining the writing career of “Martian hate-monger” H.G. Wells to pointing out that Doctor Who, 2002: A Space Odyssey, and Superman are thinly disguised re-tellings of actual history, I had some fun re-writing the first half of the 20th century.

But there’s certainly a serious side to “Martians,” one that hits home even a bit more squarely since the United States sanctioned same-sex marriage last month. I knew that parallels between Martian asexuality and Earthling homosexuality were inevitable, but I wanted to come up with something that would be truly, truly alien in terms of reproduction.

And I failed. Asexual reproduction is all around us, from tulips to strawberries as one character suggests. Why didn’t I go with parthenogenesis specifically? What was I thinking? Clearly, I must schedule more time with whiptale lizards. They’re all female, but they go about reproducing just fine, thank you kindly.Whiptale LizardThe method of narrating “Martians” was particularly fun, what with its mimicking the style of a radio documentary. (That’s my voice and music you hear in the Verbosity promos!) I knew the Decoder Ring Theatre troupe would have fun creating the old-time radio “flashbacks,” too, since that’s kind of what they do best. I’m not entirely sure why the script’s Flash Martin was changed to Flash Martian, but I suppose every playwright occasionally needs to take a deep, cleansing breath . . . and move on.

This play fits very well with the next and final installment of Marvellous Boxes: “Aliens Are Like Mirages.” Their connection is reinforced by the fact that the very talented Michelle D’Allesandro Hatt is highlighted in both, first as history professor Penelope Verne and later as theology student Pam Dore.  Thematically, the two plays address human tribalism and the acceptance of different groups, whether that difference is racial, sexual, religious, and on and on. In “Martians,” we listen to the failure to accept difference. In “Mirages,” we listen to the refusal to exclude difference. It’s certainly an ongoing drama in human history, but as I’ll discuss next month, I sense that we Earthlings are slowly, ever slowly moving away from tribalism.

A Case of Teleæsthetia: Louis Joseph Vance’s Dr. Philip Fosdick

“Oh, plain sleuthing, for one thing–like digging into the mystery of your parents’ marriage, finding out why they were unhappy, and especially who your mother was and what sort of family she had behind her–whether, in short, it’s possible that you’ve inherited some psychic tradition. There are families, for instance, that hand down from generation to generation the clairvoyant tendency we know by the name of second sight.”

So says Dr. Philip Fosdick in Louis Joseph Vance’s 1920 novel The Dark Mirror. Fosdick is almost a minor character, working in the background as the reader follows the strange story of his patient/client much more closely. Fosdick pops in now and again, and is granted “the big reveal” at the end, but the novel is not a step-by-step account of the investigation itself. Nonetheless, he fits my definition of an occult detective. He accepts the reality of clairvoyance and, specifically, teleæsthetia. (The latter is perceiving things without the usual sense organs, such as seeing something going on miles and miles away. Think of having a very personal television in your head.) Fosdick, a psychoanalyst, is a solid member of the doctor-detective tradition that includes such key occult detective figures as Drs. Taverner, Silence, Van Helsing, and Hesselius. He also uses fairly standard detective methods — including hiring a professional private detective to assist — in order to successfully solve the novel’s central mystery.

Dark MirrorThe mystery involves Priscilla Maine, the real focus of the book. She’s a painter living a double life through frighteningly real dreams. Vance does quite well at complicating things, having Maine’s waking life cross paths with her more dangerous yet very romantic dream life. He’s not afraid to kill off characters, preventing a conventional happy ending, too. At least at the beginning, one wonders if the artistic Priscilla might be having artistic delusions. All good stuff.

That said, there are some plot holes. (How did Inez just happen to know where Mario was living, for example?). Some parts of the final solution are very predictable and show up in similar novels from well into the previous century. And there’s Vance’s overwrought language. Here’s an example of the thick wordage a reader must slash with a machete: “And insidiously the tranquil surface of that contentment was flawed by apprehensions of nameless danger, of peril latent, stealthy and implacable; as though the swimmer surmised some monstrous shape of evil skulking unseen in those opaque deeps–or felt herself subtly ensnared by a current whose irresistible set was altogether toward destruction.” Remember, this is 1920. Granted, Ernest Hemingway hasn’t quite arrived yet, but Vance’s countrymen Mark Twain and Frank Norris and other writers winning the battle against such florid narrative style have.

Despite those flaws, I enjoyed the novel. It’s hokey, it’s melodramatic, but it’s goofy fun. It’s always a pleasure to meet criminal characters named Charlie the Coke, Harry the Nut, and English Addie and to hear them talk the talk that Vance imagines New York street folks talk. Priscilla, the uptown star of the show, is resourceful, daring, smart, and not at all the lackluster damsel in distress. There are narrow escapes aplenty, and poor Priscilla is usually the one escaping.

In fact, The Dark Mirror feels much like a Perils of Pauline-style silent-movie thriller, and it was quickly adapted in to just that. (I wonder if Vance had this in mind when he was writing it.) The film still exists according to this and this source, but I haven’t found an online or a DVD copy of it. If anyone happens to know of where I might take a look at it, please let me know. The Dark Mirror is far from top-notch occult detective fiction, but I’m interested to see what the early movies did with the early occult detectives.

This Month’s FREE Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mystery!

When I wrote the thirteen chronicles in Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909), I decided to make the first half of the book lean toward telling Lucille’s story. Her immigrant past. Her father dying. Her mother, who didn’t speak English well, doing what she could to keep her family of two alive in the U.S. And the daughter’s resentment of how her mother succeeded at doing that.

This month’s free story, “Shadows Cast from Behind Me,” starts to bring closure to that narrative. It does so on a positive note, I think. It’s a story about the past but also very much about the future. Those who’ve read the entire book know what an important role Eric “Rick” Bergson comes to play in the life of Vera’s sidekick, and he returns here from “Skittering Holes.” For myself, this is an especially important story in terms of the future because it introduces my great-grandfather and gets him to Chicago! If that hadn’t happened . . . well, I’m happy it did.

Please enjoy “Shadows Cast from Behind Me” on the A Complimentary Haunting page of my Ghostly Mysteries site. You’ll find a link to download the story in .pdf, .epub, or .mobi (Kindle) format.

If nothing else, “Shadows” depicts a curious moment in cinema history: the transition to watching movies projected onto a screen.

Putting Your Shorthouse in Order — and an Announcement

Algernon Blackwood thought that bow ties were cool.
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) knew that bow ties are cool.

Algernon Blackwood left an interesting puzzle for fans of occult detective fiction. It’s his four stories featuring a character named Jim Shorthouse. My research suggests the earliest one to be published was “A Case of Eavesdropping,” which appeared in the December 1900 issue of Pall Mall Magazine. As far as I can tell, the remaining three Shorthouse tales were first published in Blackwood’s collection The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, which also reprinted the first.

The puzzle is 1) why Blackwood scattered the stories throughout in the collection rather than putting them side-by-side and 2) why they seem to be in no particular order at all even though Shorthouse pretty clearly evolves. The solution might well be that, even when put into a seemingly sensible sequence, the stories still feel a bit disjointed — as if Blackwood never saw them as a cohesive series but just found the name “Jim Shorthouse” interesting or handy. Scattering and jumbling the four stories in The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories reinforces the idea that they were never meant to be read as sequential.

Just the same, I suggest that there is a fairly logical order to the tales, one that reveals Shorthouse’s growth toward becoming an occult detective as well as the character’s evolution in mastering fear. The order I suggest is this: “A Case of Eavesdropping,” “The Strange Adventures of a New York Secretary,” “The Empty House,” and then “With Intent to Steal.”

I suspect most readers would agree that “A Case of Eavesdropping” should come first. By itself,  it really doesn’t qualify as an occult detective story, since a young Shorthouse arrives in (presumably) New York City from England, moves into a room with noisy neighbors, gets very scared when he discovers they’re dead, and ends the story by vamoosing. There’s no detecting here and no clear detective/client or detective/criminal relationship. However, we do learn that Shorthouse can see ghosts when others cannot. This is a first step toward becoming a ghost-hunter when read with the other tales in mind. Also, when young Shorthouse flees the haunted room in the end, we see that fear has beaten him.

Blackwood's The Empty House CoverIn a way, the next story in my ordering of them is the oddest, perhaps as its name suggests. “The Strange Adventures of a New York Secretary” shows a more settled, more mature Shorthouse. He’s considering his financial future, after all. He’s not much more adept at occult detection, though he jokes about feeling like a detective at one point. Despite these small steps forward, he’s now much tougher when it comes to coping with the crazy (and kind of hokey) menagerie of Gothic creepiness into which Blackwood drops him. Important to his overall character evolution, he’s now much more cognizant of how to manage, if not master, his fear.

It’s in “The Empty House” where Shorthouse reveals glimmers of becoming a good occult detective — or, at least, a good “psychical researcher” of haunted houses. This time, he doesn’t just accidentally find himself in a haunted place; he accepts an invitation to explore one! And he knows the right and proper investigative routine, making notes as he goes. Though Blackwood describes him a “young” man in passing, his wrinkle-cheeked, “elderly spinster aunt” accompanies him on the investigation. Not his grandmother, mind you, who would be a full two generations removed but his aunt. Our young man is growing up, in other words.

He’s growing up in terms of facing fear, too, since this time he has to manage not just his own fear — but that of his companion, too. If not for this element of the story, one could probably swap “Empty House” and “Strange Adventures” either way. However, I maintain that Shorthouse’s experience with having his aunt along with him as his companion leads especially well into the final story. I suppose the fact that “Eavesdropping” and “Strange Adventures” are both set in New York also helps. Though it’s inconclusive, “Empty House” suggests that Shorthouse just might have moved back to England.

Much as it’s easy to put “Eavesdropping” first, it’s also easy to put “With Intent to Steal” last. Shorthouse is now decidedly more mature — even worldly — and he’s fully committed to combating supernatural evil. His relationship with a companion, as I say above, is also central to this case. That companion serves as the narrator in the style of Dr. Watson, reinforcing the notion that Shorthouse has very much arrived as a true occult detective. As the two characters spend the night in a haunted barn, Shorthouse tells of his earlier experiences, and a reader might wonder if the companion here isn’t, in fact, the narrator of the earlier three stories, too! Blackwood never resolves that issue once and for all, though.

But why does it matter what order we put them in? Why can’t the stories just be read in the order Blackwood put them in The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories — or in any order the reader chooses? Well, of course, this is all an exercise in building a Shorthouse of cards. There’s no real point other than . . . why not? It’s this or go buy some milk. After all, I am out of milk.

And I’m in the final stage of editing a new anthology for Coachwhip Publications’ growing series of occult detective books. My book is made up of occult detective “short series,” each series spotlighting a character whose two, three, or four adventures weren’t enough to fill a book by themselves. Jim Shorthouse is one of those characters, and I had to find some defensible order to place the stories. I’ll give more specifics about this anthology as the publication date approaches, so stop by from time to time to learn about Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-Lived Occult Detective Series by Six Renowned Authors. I think it’ll be a fun addition to the libraries of occult detective fans.