Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Fog (1975)

James Herbert's novel The Fog (1975) doesn't have quite as much nudity and sex in it as the totally awesome cover might suggest, although there is certainly as much sex (and some of it rather disturbing) as you would expect any self-respecting 1970s horror novel to contain.

John Holman is an investigator for the Department of the Environment who is driving back to London from a secret stakeout at a military installation in rural Britain. As he enters a small town, the ground starts shaking, the highway splits apart and his car falls into the crevasse in the earth. He manages to get out of his car and crawl towards safety, but on his way out he is surrounded by a strange yellow fog escaping from deep in the earth. When the rescuers finally pull him from the ground, he is completely violent and insane.

Holman is restrained in a hospital, gets a blood transfusion, and fights his demons for several days before returning to his regular self. His girlfriend stands by him, and the two of them begin the drive back to London. But as they drive, they run into the mysterious yellow fog -- and it is getting bigger.

This book was really well written and entertaining -- it ultimately moves between Holman who has to convince the government that the fog is dangerous, and who is quickly recognized as the only person who is immune to the effects of the fog, and a series of vignettes of the different people who come into contact with the fog with horrible results. This novel is part government conspiracy, part zombie attack, part creepy isolation, and a whole lot of yellowish fog that becomes a character in its own right.

The characterization of big and small players in the book is excellent -- sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, and always effective. Some of the description is so cinematic that I can't believe no one has made this into a movie: the entire population of a seaside resort walking into the ocean; spotting all the pigeons of Trafalgar square sitting motionless in the fog and ready to attack at a moment's notice; opening the curtains after some "everything is finally okay" sex to nothing but blank yellowish fog... (Note: John Carpenter's wonderful movie The Fog (1980) is not related to this book.)

I haven't read a straight-up horror novel for many years, and The Fog made me want to revisit some of my favorites...

[Thanks to the lovely Dan for letting me steal this out of his garage sale pile...]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France (2002)

For notwithstanding you are in the Bloom of your Life; tho’ ev’ry Pleasure courts you; tho’ you are Nature’s Darling, and have internal Qualities in proportion to your Beauty; tho’ the World resounds your Praises from Morning till Night, and consequently you must have a just Title to a superior Degree of Understanding than the rest of your Sex; Yet your Wit is no ways flashy; Your Taste is refin’d, and I have had the Honour to hear you talk more learnedly than the wisest Dervise, with his venerable Beard, and pointed Bonnet: You are discreet, and yet not mistrustful; you are easy, but not weak; you are beneficent with Discretion; you love your Friends, and create yourself no Enemies. Your most sprightly Flights borrow no Graces from Detraction; you never speak a misbecoming Word, nor do an ill-natur’d Action, tho’ ’tis always in your Power. In a Word, your Soul is as spotless as your Person. You have, moreover, a little Fund of Philosophy, which gives me just Grounds to hope that you’ll relish this Historical Performance better than any other Lady of your Quality would do. -- Voltaire, from the dedication of Zadig (1747).

I was interested to read more about Madame de Pompadour (Louis XV's mistress and an ambitious member of the mid-18th century Parisian bourgeoisie who eventually became the most politically influential woman in France) after I read Voltaire's Zadig, which is dedicated to the marquise and filled with allusions to the religious and political upheavals of the day. Luckily my interest was easily sated since I bought a copy of Christine Pevitt Algrant's Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France (2002) four or five years ago and it has been sitting patiently on my bookshelf ever since.

Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson to an upper-middle class army procurement officer and his beautiful and charming Parisian wife. Her mother, in fact was so beautiful and charming that, like most of the rest of Paris, she was the mistress of a man (and possibly several men) more powerful than her husband. There is, in fact, some doubt that Msr. Poisson was not really his daughter's father and the interest shown in the education and placement of little Jeanne-Antoinette by Charles Lenormand de Tournehem, a member of the wealthy and powerful Parisian elite, leads many to suspect that he was her biological father.

Everyone noticed how pretty, graceful, smart and well- mannered Jeanne-Antoinette was and she was spared no expense in her education in the arts and manners of the upper-crust. She was married to nephew of Tournehem, even though all around her seemed to know she was destined for better things (oddly, Parisian society said you can't go into the business of becoming a mistress until you have already become a wife). Really she was being primed to be the mistress of someone powerful for most of her life, and when there was an opening in the love life of the young and handsome King of France, Louis XV, strings were pulled to make sure that the lovely Jeanne-Antoinette was noticed by his majesty.

She soon became the favorite of his mistresses, was given the title of a marquise, and her husband was sent to a far off post and forced to cede his wife to the king and the court in Versailles. The king was a moody and indecisive man who hated the pomp and ceremony of court and preferred to be hunting, having small dinners with close friends, or having sex with his bevy of "young birds" -- beauties picked from all over France for his enjoyment. The marquise was smart enough to know what the king wanted, and to pour all her talent into creating an environment where the king would be most comfortable -- and ensuring her success at court by making sure no one else could provide what she did for the king.

Although she was his mistress, Algrant argues that their relationship was probably more one of friendship and routine than sex. Madame de Pompadour frequently describes herself as cold in her correspondence, and she encouraged the king's dalliances with his "little birds" as long as none of them got too uppity and threatened her place.

Madame de Pompadour used her influence with the king to procure placements and favors for her friends and family, and gradually her place at court became the only venue to an audience with the king. Those who flattered her were rewarded, those who resented the intrusion of a mistress and a member of the bourgeoisie into the elite and isolated environment of the court were punished. As the king became more and more disassociated from his subjects and the country, the marquise took over more and more of the correspondence and audiences that got things done in French politics. Religious and political unrest, the disastrous and expensive Seven Years War, and the hatred and scapegoating of the French people took their toll on Madame de Pompadour, who never lost her grip over the king or the court, but finally succumbed to years of poor health at the age of 42.

Algrant's book is a very readable and well-researched life of this interesting, ambitious and flawed woman who became a repository for the disgust and frustration of the French people for the royal family two generations before the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette (who was married to Louis XV's grandson). The last quarter of the book gets a little bogged down in battles and nobles and bureaucratic intrigue, but that is more history's fault than Algrant's. Definitely worth reading.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A sucker for good art

Dr. M and I love a variety pack, so when he saw Magic Hat Brewing Company's Night of the Living Dead sampler, he couldn't resist. The art on the box and bottles is awesome (you can get a taste of it here [warning lots of flash and a bit of a soundtrack]). So far this Fall 09 one is the only one I've had, but I consider it to be quite acceptable. And the skeleton artwork gets extra points.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Just three awesome frat dudes being awesome for your enjoyment.

[And if you haven't seen Night of the Creeps (1986), what have you been doing with your life?]

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Spot of LIfe (1932)

I bought Austin Hall's novel The Spot of Life (published serially in 1932 and first printed in book form in 1964) because it was only a dollar and it had this quote on the back: "But nobody had reckoned with the cunning brain of the ruler of that Other World, the weird warrior-king known as the Bar Senestro." Just say "Bar Senestro" a few times. Now don't you want to read it too?

When Detective Flanning sees an oddly dressed but very handsome man walking down the street in San Francisco, his curiosity overtakes him and he offers to show the man the way to an address he has written on a scrap of paper (the home of a professor and Spinoza scholar). The stranger causes quite a scene with the professor, so Flanning then follows him to a mysterious house that has given off weird vibes to everyone in the neighborhood for thirty years. After Flanning enters the house, things really start getting weird: Strange lights flash, bells toll, odd people are alive, then dead, then disappear completely. Then the Spinoza scholar is found dead, and Flanning finds himself teaming up with the professor's son -- a science whiz who is also the captain of the college football team. Together they hope to solve the mystery of the weird spot in the mysterious house, learn a few things about Life and Death, and save humanity from an inter-dimensional invasion.

Although it didn't mention anything about it on the cover of the book, The Spot of Life is actually a sequel to The Blind Spot, which Hall wrote with Homer Eon Flint and which was serialized in 1921. Flint died in 1924 under mysterious circumstances (he may or may not have been involved in a robbery and may or may not have been killed by gangsters), and Hall dedicates this sequel to his friend. I haven't read The Blind Spot, although I feel like I have since large sections of The Spot of Life involve characters finding bits and pieces of a manuscript (which is conveniently the earlier book) and reading them aloud.

The Spot of Life isn't great, but it is representative of a solid 1930s sci-fi serial with lots of action, a small amount of romance, and plenty of science.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008)

The wonderful St. Murse loaned me his copy of David Wroblewski's first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), so he gets the friend of the month prize for knowing what I would like to read. Congratulations, Murse!

I didn't know anything about this book going into it except that it had also been recommended to me by Dr. M's sister, and that it takes place in Wisconsin (where I just visited). After looking at the cover of the book, I learned that it is also part of the Oprah bookclub. And it is very long.

The discovery that takes place while reading this book and gradually figuring out where the author is going was so fun and exciting that I don't want to ruin it with too many details about the plot, so I'll keep it brief:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is really the story of the Sawtelle family and their dogs. The Sawtelle's live in rural Wisconsin and have been breeding and training an elite line of dogs for two generations. Gar and Trudy have one son, our protagonist Edgar, who was born mute (although he can hear), and Edgar has one close companion (besides his parents), his dog Almondine. What starts as a pastoral and beautifully descriptive story about the Sawtelle's and their dogs turns into a Shakespearean tragedy with the appearance of Gar's black-sheep brother Claude.

This is a perfectly pitched coming-of-age story that draws on the isolation and beauty of the Wisconsin landscape as a solid foundation for a re-envisioning of a classic plot. Lovely and perfect and satisfyingly tragic.