Friday, July 31, 2009

Fully Dressed And In His Right Mind (1935) by Michael Fessier

"Like John Franklin Bardin [The Deadly Percheron], Fressier takes a screwball situation and adroitly twists it into something evil."
-Karl Edward Wagner, 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels.

Fressier passed away many years ago after a long and distinguished career writing for movies and TV. He didn't produce a lot of novels, which is what makes Fully Dressed memorable.
I like to imagine KEW finding this one in some dusty bookstore or second hand shop, on the verge of tossing it back, then thinking: "Wait a minute, this looks good." As I work my way through his "essentials" list, the variety of it never ceases to amaze me. There are days I wonder how big the list might've been if he'd decided to publish everything which had impressed him.
Here's the opening line from the novel:

"I was standing in front of the Herald and somebody fired a shot and I saw a fat man turn slowly on one heel and fall to the sidewalk."

The victim is the publisher of the local paper. The killer is a nondescript little old man. The narrator of the story is John Price, an everyman who just happens to find himself caught up in events he can't fathom. The little old man keeps showing up at Price's favourite hang-outs, freely admitting to the murder and several others which occur in the book. Because the old man, who never seems to have a name, is so harmless in appearance, no one takes his claims seriously. But, when people do get irritated at the old man, they suddenly discover his eyes turn into flaming pits of green fire.
Soon, Price has taken up with an artist who wants to paint the old man's portrait. But then Price discovers a woman who swims naked every night in a local park lake. She's apparently some kind of water nymph who serves as the counterpart to the old man. The two mythical creatures exist in a balance, which never does get explained in the book.
I can't understand why KEW classified this book as "Non-Supernatural", because there doesn't seem to be any other explanation for the woman or the old man.
Fully Dressed, is written with a lot of dialogue and not much in the way of character sketching. I can't help but wonder if it was originally written as a film proposal. It would've fit in with a lot of the romantic comedies of the time. Replace the little old man with "Hey Aaaaaabot!" and you'll see what I mean.
It can also be read in one sitting.

Monday, July 6, 2009

TORTURE GARDEN by Octave Mirabeau

"Fin-de-siecle decadence at its best. At one time one of those 'suppressed' books and now chiefly remembered as one of Frank Frazetta's better paperback covers"
-Karl Edward Wagner, 1983

"In a broader sense the expression fin de si├Ęcle is used to characterize anything that has an ominous mixture of opulence and/or decadence, combined with a shared prospect of unavoidable radical change or some approaching 'end.'"- Wikipedia

First published in 1899, Torture Garden still leaves a taste of decadence in your mouth. Written by a French journalist disgusted with the pomposity of his own society, he shows us a foreign one equally beautiful, equally deadly. Mirabeau was famous for writing about forbidden subjects and shoving them in the reader's face. In this book, he decided to examine the connection of sex and death by way of art and beauty.
Torture Garden begins with a discussion about law and society among a gathering of cultured guests. As it turns to punishment, a quiet guest begins to tell his tale of a trip he recently took to China.
But first he gives us his back story:
After being raised in by a ruthless businessman of a father, our hero suddenly found himself penniless while still a young man (dad's shady business deals having caught up with the family). So he becomes a patron of the only man more twisted than his father: a government minister he went to college with. His political friend, named Eugene, becomes worried the narrator will become a lead weight on his career, so he manages to send him on a government paid scientific mission to Asia. It doesn't matter that the hero of the book doesn't know a thing about his subject- embryology- the important issue is getting him out of France.
While traveling to China he meets an Englishwoman, the beautiful and sensuous Clara. Unfortunately for him, Clara has an unhealthy obsession with death. Once they reach China, she takes him to a the Torture Garden of the book's title: A massive garden outside a penitentiary. Those convicted by a Chinese judge are executed by bizarre and unusual means. After visiting and describing the gardens, he leaves with Clara. But Clara is so lost in her ecstasy she soon faints. A Chinese ferry woman, who has wittnessed Clara's swoons before, takes them both to the only place Clara can recover: a floating sex club. End of book.
There isn't a lot of plot or character deveopment in Torture Garden. Mirabeau was obsessed with hammering home his belief about French society being one big execution chamber. There is an interesting scene where the narrator and Clara encounter an executioner who fancies himself an artist and deplores the crude mass killings of gunpowder. I'm not sure if the description of the prision or the torture garden has any basis in relaity; I'll leave that one for late-period Manchu Dynasty scholars.
A fascinating example of "Decandent 90's" writing from the same decade which gave us The King In Yellow.