A useful suggestion for Harry and Meghan

It’s the weekend. Time for lighter topics, such as “Whatever shall we do about Harry and Meghan?”

The unhappy(?) couple

For those of you who missed it, Harry and Meghan, a.k.a. the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, members of the British Royal Family, announced recently that they are stepping back from their role as “senior members” of the royal family, will split their time between Britain and North America, and hope to achieve financial independence. And people think Millennials are irresponsible!

The announcement was greeted with some puzzlement. What, pray tell, is a “senior member” of the royal family, and how do the Sussexes qualify? One would presume the designation belongs to Queen Lizzie, well into her 90s, or her son and heir Prince Chucklehead, now in his 70s. Harry and Meghan are only in their 30s.

Being a royal ages you

It seems “senior member” is Brit-speak for “having to serve as ceremonial figures on a routine basis, like the rest of the royal family.” It’s an occupation open only to royals, and to Hollywood celebrities who once would have taken up roles on the game show Hollywood Squares. It’s a pretty empty job, not exciting like being an accountant or middle-level manager.

One could understand Harry and Meghan wanting to chuck the job. Meghan actually had a real career as an actress and celebrity. And Harry was once famous as the royal cut-up, sometimes taking a mischievous turn by wearing a Nazi uniform. Being as functional as an ornamental china cup is dull by comparison.

Let unsaid in the official announcement were some of the important reasons why Harry and Meghan made this announcement. They weren’t just tired of the boring ceremonies. They were also tired of the round-the-clock press coverage. (And who can blame them for that?) And Meghan has taken more than her share of abuse for being American, biracial, and her own person. Say what you will about Harry, he’s stuck with her. I think the two can take their place among adults without any shame. That’s more than could be said for some of their critics.

Edward VIII abdicated to marry his bride. Some think the British got off lucky.

Britain treated their announcement as some sort of disaster. It is being compared to the Abdication Crisis of 1936, in which a British king renounced the throne to marry a sexually aggressive twice-divorced American woman. Harry and Meghan have been accused of not keeping the queen informed. This apparently is a form of treason.

One wonders what the big deal is. Harry is not part of the main line of succession to the throne, standing sixth. Short of an unexpected die-off, there are Windsors to sit on the throne into the next century. Harry’s chances of inheriting the throne are not much better than mine. I’m supposedly descended from Alfred the Great. I’m not sure that qualifies me under the Act of Succession (1701).

Yeah, Boris and Nicola get along just great! Can’t you see the warmth there?

Clearly, the issue is symbolic. The British Royal Family is one of the things that keeps the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland together, which is pretty funny when you look at how dysfunctional they are as a family. But the alternatives are worse. One shudders at the thought that the nation would have to look to Boris Johnson as their symbol of unity. The day that happens, Nicola Sturgeon will be able to take Scotland out of the Union with a spontaneous uprising. No, the Royals, particularly the much-revered queen, hold the country together.

A good royal like Charles II had at least 8 mistresses and 16 illegitimate children

Therefore, Harry and Meghan’s move is deeply disturbing. They are not behaving as royals should! The Realm is in danger! Winter is coming! People hunt for an explanation to assuage their fears. Clearly, it’s Meghan’s fault. Meghan really isn’t one of them anyhow. If only she hadn’t corrupted Harry with her dark sexual arts. (See, one can be misogynistic and racist at the same time.) Oh, why couldn’t Harry just go on being a scapegrace, bedding random women of loose morals like a good royal?

As for the unhappy couple, I have trouble sympathizing with their plight. None of this hogwash about “they should have known what they were getting into.” It is a boring job, and even demeaning to realize you’re doing work because of who Harry’s grandmother is, not really anything about yourself. Still, Harry and Meghan are famous, wealthy, and, apart from being royals, presumably happy with each other and their little family. That puts them in a better position that perhaps 99% of the world’s population.

And I doubt they can really escape from being royals. They can stop doing the ceremonial stuff, they can step into the background, but they are still royals, still celebrities. If Meghan tries to resume her career, she’ll be dogged by the eternal question of whether she’s getting a role because she’s a good actress or just a royal. And what Harry will do, who knows? The essential problem is that if they try to make a living as celebrities, they are really just relying on their position as royals, even though they are no longer doing the job. And while it’s a stupid job, being a royal, the British taxpayers want their money’s worth. Ultimately, they finance the royal family, because they could vote it out of existence and confiscate its every property.

Say what you want about his Presidency, but Jimmy Carter’s been a real humanitarian ever since. That makes him a real prince among men.

I do have a suggestion for Harry and Meghan. You really want to chuck your royal roles and be your own persons? You want to be valued for who you are and what you can do, not just which family you belong to? Spend 5 years helping Jimmy Carter build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Or something similar. Something that will show you actually doing good by your own efforts. I’m not saying this because I think you need to do some sort of penance for your wealth and privilege. No. I’m saying this because it is one way to get people to take you seriously. It’ll show that you’re trying to shuck being a celebrity, that you want to do real stuff. As much as anything could, it could help take you out of the limelight; after 600 pictures of Meghan looking decidedly unsexy and unstylish in paint-stained overalls, even the paparazzi will get tired.

I doubt you’ll follow my suggestion. Probably, you’ll try to make a go of it in comfortable jobs, where you are implicitly relying on your royal fame. Unlike your Uncle Wessex and his wife, you might succeed. And no one will be unhappy. Unless, late at night, you lay awake wondering if being a royal celebrity is all that you ever are or will be.

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Pterodactyl Taxidermy

Pterodactyl Taxidermy

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The Halloween read: the horror of Adrian Ross

It’s my custom around Halloween to dredge up and read a “moldy oldie,” a story of horror or the supernatural written many years ago, which is mostly forgotten today. This year, my choice was the two horror stories written by Adrian Ross, “By One, By Two and By Three” and The Hole of the Pit.

I make people laugh when I’m not trying to terrify them.

Adrian Ross was the pen name of Arthur Reed Ropes (1859 – 1933), an academic who went on to become a successful English musical comedy lyricist. Why he chose to write two, and only two horror stories is a bit of a mystery. It’s quite likely he was motivated by his friendship with the most famous writer of ghost stories in his era, M. R. James. Indeed, The Hole of the Pit is dedicated to James.

In some ways, the two stories are much alike. In both, the protagonist is beset with difficulties that include a family curse. In both, the narrator is a university man who gets unwillingly dragged into the workings of the curse. In both, fear is evoked by seeing what the horror does, not what it looks like. And in both, things end badly for the protagonist. (I’d have put a spoiler alert before that last sentence, but, c’mon, these are horror stories. You were thinking maybe they had happy endings?)

M. R. James not only knew Ross, but no doubt appreciated how Ross’s 2 horror stories followed James’s rules for ghost stories.

“By One, By Two and By Three” is a short story, the earlier of the two, originally published anonymously in 1887. It is generally considered to be more derivative than original. And there are elements of it that will grate on readers today, noticeably the stereotypical stingy Scottish uncle.

And yet, Ross’s characterization of his protagonist, Macbane, makes him to be a fascinating character. One suspects Macbane is even a mystery to himself. He unleashes the family curse, and yet clearly doubts the wisdom of his own actions. Ross also does a good job building up the atmosphere of horror, hinting, explaining, evoking. Some readers today might find the build-up a bit slow, but that’s what’s needed for it to work properly.

The Hole of the Pit, published in 1914, is longer, more complicated, and perhaps a better work. Unlike the earlier short story, which was set in contemporary times, Hole takes us back to England in 1645, in the midst of the civil war between Cavaliers and Roundheads. The story’s protagonist is a Royalist earl and commander who flees back to his island stronghold after Cromwell’s victory at Naseby. And almost all the story is set in the stronghold, the nearby village, and the waters that lap at their shores.

Unlike “By One . . .,” where the protagonist is the most interesting character, in Hole they are the narrator and the earl’s mistress. The former is the earl’s cousin, a Puritan of uncertain faith whose commentary on people and events is meant both to convey a mood of impending dread, and to provide touches of humor when the Puritan comments on people’s religious views and actions. The earl’s mistress is an Italian woman versed in magic. She could have been just a stereotypical evil woman, but we get to see her torn between self-preservation and her attachment to the earl. It makes her more wicked, but also more human.

Just as “By One . . .” had its stereotypical miserly Scottish uncle, so Hole has its stereotypical virtuous young woman who falls in love with the narrator. Say this for Ross, he may have realized how flat their romance is. Every so often, he hints at a match-up between the Italian woman with the narrator; how the sparks would have flown if they had!

“By One, By Two and By Three” was adapted to television for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery series in 1972. I can’t recommend the adaptation. To its credit, it updated the setting and jettisoned the stereotype of a cheap Scotsman. And there is a truly frightening chase sequence. But the adaptation made two serious mistakes, reducing MacBane (as he is named in the show) to a caricature of a lazy and ungrateful student, while actually showing us the horror at the end. I’m sorry, TV special effects from 1972 have not aged at all well. You might say they were the Scottish uncle of the adaptation.

I wonder if Ross had ever read any of William Hope Hodgson’s stories.

Are they worth reading? They aren’t bad. They aren’t great. If you don’t mind slow build-ups, they’re good enough to crack open on a cold, dark night. Readers of William Hope Hodgson’s nautical horror stories, including The Ghost Pirates, might find The Hole of the Pit of particular interest.

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The story of a chess game

Staunton chess pieces, the standard in competition

Games are something like stories. In role-playing games, the connection is obvious, but it’s true even of board games. So I want to tell the story of one such game, a game of chess.

I was on my high school’s chess team my senior year. Although I compiled a record of two wins, one draw, and no losses in interscholastic competition, I was not really all that good. It’s symbolic of my playing that my best game was probably the one I drew.

It was my first game playing against another school. Not that I was worried, more fool me. I drew white, we sat down to play, and at first, everything went well.

Reproductions of the famous chess set from the Isle of Lewis

But you see, there was a problem. We were playing by strict competitive rules. That included touch-move. You touch a piece or pawn, you MUST move it. You let go of a piece or pawn, and you cannot move it again, ESPECIALLY not to take back your move.

I’d never played touch-move before.

So I did the obvious stupid thing. I picked up a piece, moved it, let go, and then realized I had made a stupid move. Not JUST a stupid move, a fatal move. I was going to lose a piece. (I think it was one of my rooks.)

Which I did. And as a natural result, I soon lost another. In a game when the players are of comparable ability, that’s it, folks. One does not recover from being down two pieces.

But this was my first game! I couldn’t lose it. No. I thought, I thought, I thought. And then I came up with a plan. It was based on something I’d read in a chess book.

If I couldn’t win on skill, I was going to win by using psychology. No, nothing like making weird noises, or trying to irritate my opponent. That would be bush league, and probably have caused me to forfeit.

I played stupid. If I could fumble once with touch-move, I could do it again. I was going to get my opponent to underestimate me. And that way, he would not see the dreadful surprise I was going to spring on him.

18th century chess piece from India

I lost more pieces. I ran my king almost to the corner of the board as it dodged attacks. (That was my plan.) I worked to ensure all my pawns were blocked from advancing, and exchanged as many pieces as I could without giving away what I was doing.

We arrived at the end game. There were few pieces on the board, more of them his than mine, of course. My king was trapped on the left-most file, second row, as my opponent’s rook was on the next file (knight’s file) over. It was protecting a pawn that was blocked by my last rook from moving one more square and being promoted. (If a pawn reaches the other side of the board, it can be exchanged for any piece, even ones you haven’t lost.)

By this point, all the other games were over, and most of the other players were gathered around, waiting to see how my opponent would finally defeat me. For defeat me he must. There was no chance of my winning.

The key to what happened next is to understand that the rook was the only piece or pawn I had left that could move, apart from the king. I pulled a long face, picked up my rook, looked like I was deciding what to do with it, put it down on the bishop’s file next over, and then let go!

Naturally, I looked horror-stricken. I’d moved my rook so my opponent’s pawn could not only capture it, but be promoted! Without a moment’s thought, my opponent reached out, took my rook with his pawn, and replaced his pawn with a queen.

Kings and queens, that’s what it’s all about!
(Credit: Wikipedia/Andy Burgess)

I said one word. “Stalemate.” The room burst into chuckles. I’d drawn the game.

In his haste, and sure I was a bad player, my opponent hadn’t looked carefully at how all the pieces were arranged. By promoting to a queen, he had not put my king in check (where it could be captured by another piece), but he had made it impossible for me to move my king without moving it into check. I had no other pieces, and all my pawns were blocked. That meant I HAD to move my king, but under the rules of chess, one cannot move a king into check. So I had no move. Under chess rules, the game ended there, a stalemate, a draw, with neither of us winning or losing.

What made this such a devilish and risky play on my part, is that if my opponent had figured out what I was doing, he could have taken my rook with his pawn, and promoted his pawn to any other piece except a queen, and won. But he was already convinced I was a bad player, and could make such obvious mistakes. So he didn’t look carefully, and naturally promoted his pawn to the most powerful piece, a queen. And so blew his victory.

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A report on the state of my health

I had a cold. It was a promiscuous cold; others had had it before me. And yet it clung to me like an unpaid student loan. I tried to use whiskey as an antibiotic. It went viral. I tried to sleep, but every time I came close, it woke me with a cough.

Finally, I sat down at my computer and called up the news. It was so depressing, I heard each cold virus scream as it committed suicide in a fit of nihilistic despair.

Wise men used to say, “starve a cold, feed a fever.” I say, show ’em the news. Let’s see just how tough they really are.

(From the movie, “The Shining.”)

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Review: The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Having just read and reviewed The Werewolf of Paris, I decide to tackle its movie version, The Curse of the Werewolf, for my Halloween evening entertainment. In short, read the book. It’s interesting and unusual. The movie is a run-of-the-mill horror flick, with only one redeeming factor: it starts slow because it focuses on character development for the first half.

I knew I’d be in trouble from the start with this movie, because the setting has been transferred from France to Spain. All the comparisons between the outrages of the werewolf and the outrages of humans at war were dropped from the novel along with this change of setting, taking out one of its major points.

Amazing how the peasant maids all have ample cleavage!

Still, the first part of this movie is reasonably faithful to the novel in spirit. Even some of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the novel. Our young lad has an ill-omened conception and birth. As he grows older, his “uncle” thinks he’s becoming a werewolf, and tries various means to protect and restrain him. The lad himself is bewildered, because he doesn’t fully understand his plight. It’s all done fairly well. Makes you think about how you’d feel in their situation.

Having jettisoned the rest of the novel’s plot, the movie develops the werewolf along standard cinematic lines. He becomes uncontrollable at the full moon, looks like a hairy man, and maybe can be redeemed by true love. There’s the inevitable climax when a mob faces the werewolf. Ta-da. The end.

Thanks for tossing me in a dungeon where I was raped, you lecherous old bastard!

It’s not bad, as an ordinary werewolf movie from the days before An American Werewolf in London. You’ll think you’re watching an old Universal horror flick, even though this came from Hammer Studios. There’s even a young Oliver Reed in one of his first starring roles as the cursed young man. But so much was sacrificed from the book! Take the love interest. In both the book and the movie, she’s a young aristocratic woman who rejects a bland upper-class lover for the werewolf. The movie’s Cristina is virginal and pure, hence a conventional redeemer. The book’s Sophie is a much more complex character, whose darker cravings answer the werewolf’s.

If you like the old-fashioned monster movies, you’ll enjoy this. Just be prepared for a slow build-up. But if you want a horror story that challenges you, read the book.

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Horror for Halloween: The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore

Guy Encore (1901-70), author, screenwriter, political radical and activist

One of the standard criticisms of supernatural horror literature is that it is unreal. Why this isn’t a criticism of all literature is a good question, but supernatural horror literature is condemned for presenting us with unreal horrors when so many real horrors abound in the world. Well, hang on to your shoulder straps, boys and girls, because Guy Endore is going to take you on a ride that turns that criticism upside-down. We’re talking about his best-selling novel, The Werewolf of Paris.

The biggest problem with this book is that it’s too well-written.[1] There is no shocking language at all, not surprising since this was written in 1933. It’s the events that should shock you. But the novel is so low-key that the reader takes on the entire range of crime, from murder and rape to more enduring forms of cruelty, with hardly a shudder. Endore was also a Hollywood screenwriter, but there was no way under the Hays Code to turn this novel into a movie. Even today, a faithful adaptation would be at the very least a hard ‘R,’ and quite possibly the disreputable NC-17.[2] It did get filmed once, in 1961, as The Curse of the Werewolf. I’ll track that down and watch it soon to see how badly they bowdlerized the novel.

So what’s it about? Degenerate scum priest rapes peasant girl and produces a son tainted with lycanthropy. The reader figures this out pretty quickly. Jump scares aren’t this novel’s style. It’s watching the boy’s family deal with his growing problem, and then following young Bertrand into the violent and chaotic war-torn Paris of 1870-71[3] in which the novel hits its stride. Gee, character development: probably the greatest weakness of the supernatural horror genre, and yet it’s the substance of this book. What do you do when your child likes to go out and slaughter creatures with his teeth? How much attention would a werewolf get in a land convulsed with violence?

There are no good people here, just real ones. Everyone’s wrestling with their problems. A lot of them are trying to do good, but their own natures and events sometimes conspire to twist their actions to wicked ends. Endore’s no optimist. But, give him credit, he can sympathize with human failings at the same time that he condemns them.

The Werewolf of Paris lures you in with a horror story about a werewolf. And then it actually gets horrible. You’ll finish the book a sadder and wiser person. Me, I kept thinking this novel reads more like it was written after the Second World War than before, when people clearly knew that their fellow man could set up extermination camps and slaughter millions. But no, it was written in 1933, from the safety of the United States.

This book was my “moldy oldie” for Halloween: my annual reading and reviewing of a supernatural horror book that has been mostly neglected.[4] Unlike several of them, I can truly say I enjoyed this book. I thought Endore was about to go Hollywood on me when he introduced the aristocratic Sophie, but, in the end, she took her (im)proper place in this horror story.

Compared to Endore’s subtlety, this movie adaptation’s poster is not promising

 

[1]Sadly, the edition I used, a 2012 reprint from Pegasus Crime imprint, apparently was created by someone running a scanner with optical character recognition software over an older edition, and then not proofreading the result. There are some obvious typos, and a few words mangled out of recognition.

[2]For my non-American readers, the rating system in the United States is a series of letter codes. ‘G’ is family fare. ‘PG’ and ‘PG-13’ allow increasing levels of violence and sex. ‘R’ is the last “respectable” rating in the series, awarded for serious violence, extensive nudity, and stylized portrayals of sexuality. ‘NC-17’ is for movies so hardcore in their violence or sexuality that many theaters won’t show them.

[3]France and Prussia (think Germany) went to war in 1870, and the Germans besieged Paris. Meanwhile the existing French government broke down. A very leftwing government, which became the Commune, took over in Paris, while a reactionary government controlled the rest of France. After the French admitted defeat and the Germans withdrew, the National government besieged the Communards and defeated them. Endore explains a lot of this, not just to give you background, but because the violence of war is a counterpoint to Bertrand’s story.

[4]Well, I try to make it annual. Some years I’ve just been too preoccupied.

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