Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Return of the Sorcerer”

Posted in Black Mass, Clark Ashton Smith, Night Gallery (1969-1973), Richard Corben, Sator Square, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, The Return of the Sorcerer with tags , , , , , , on September 18, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

With the proliferation of Lovecraft and Cthulhu related media coming out over the last decade or so I am truly surprised that the cinematic world has not attempted to adapt more stories by his Weird Tales comrades, especially Robert Bloch and, of course, my beloved Clark Ashton Smith.

Clark Ashton Smith: poet, author, painter, sculptor and member of the original Lovecraft Circle.

Although several of Bloch’s shorter non-Mythos works have been adapted for television, and his novel “Psycho” (1959) was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1960 feature film of the same name, very few of Smith’s works have been rendered into the cinematic medium. This could be due to the esoteric nature of his subjects and the dense baroque nature of his prose which, oddly enough, I feel should actually make him stand out from his contemporaries.

The most notable adaptations of his work (at least that I am aware of) are the “Mother of Toads” segment by Richard Stanley from the portmanteau film “The Theatre Bizarre” (2011), which I have reviewed here already, and the eccentric reworking of the “The Return of the Sorcerer” (1931) for season 3 of  Night Gallery in 1972. Whereas the former is an admirable, if flawed, attempt to bring the essence of Smith’s tale to the silver screen, the latter is a risible fiasco despite the casting of Vincent Price in the role of Carnby.

The September 1931 issue of “Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror” in which “The Return of the Sorcerer” was first published.

First published in the September 1931 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, the basic story is one of a young man, Mr. Ogden, who answers an ad for an in-house secretarial position from a recluse scholar in Oakland, CA (one of the rare instances of a real-world location for a Smith tale). One of the requirements for the appointment is a more than passing familiarity with the Arabic language which Ogden has. Upon arrival, he is put off by the bleakness of the demesne and the febrile mien of its senescent master, a Mr. John Carnby. He accepts the position in spite of this and, once engaged, is taken to the study which is decorated like a sorcerer’s lair: “There were tables strewn with archaic instruments of doubtful use, with astrological charts, with skulls and alembics and crystals, with censers such as are used in the Catholic Church, and volumes bound in worm-eaten leather with verdigris-mottled clasps. In one corner stood the skeleton of a large ape; in another, a human skeleton; and overhead a stuffed crocodile was suspended.” (from “The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith, 1931)

A good portion of the library, he sees, is dedicated to Goetia and Black Magic and, as it turns out, Mr. Carnby needs someone to translate a certain passage of the Necronomicon (yes, that Necronomicon) which was not included in the Latin translation, but which Ogden suspects has an occult significance to Carnby despite his protestations to the contrary. Even so, he seems to blanch at every bump that goes off in the darkness of the creepy old house. “The house is full of rats.” he says, unconvincingly in explanation. The “rats” return on subsequent nights and each time the racket they make becomes louder as they seem to encroach upon Carnby’s chamber. Ogden himself even catches a brief glimpse one night of something ” …much too pale for a rat and its form was not at all suggestive of an animal. I could not have sworn what it was, but the outlines had seemed unmentionably monstrous.” (from “The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith, 1931)

It is apparent, by his jitteriness that Carnby is anxious about something more than rats and the aforementioned grimoire passage, once translated, gives some foreshadowing of the final act, so I will skip it so as not to ruin the tale for you. It is perhaps a bit predictable, but it is also ghoulishly effective and definitely fun to read how it plays out in Smith’s Gothic prose stylings.

Marquee for “The Return of the Sorcerer” retrieved from the Night site.

In the Night Gallery adaptation the source of Carnby’s anxiety and the main reason for his wanting to accurately translate the excised Necronomicon passage is revealed much too early, thus diminishing it’s power in unlike when it was accompanied by the ensuing grisly denouement.  Aside from Price, the Night Gallery episode stars Bill Bixby as Noel Evans (a stand in for Ogden who is only known by his surname in the tale), and there is an added provocative female assistant for Carnby named Fern (played by the lovely Tisha Sterling). In the DVD commentary it is explained that Fern was added to explain what was going on to the audience, but nothing she says in this regard isn’t said by Carnby in the original tale, although she does have a monologue about overturning the patriarchy in the dinner table scene. To be honest, I believe she was added for eye candy, despite her feminist diatribe, and there is a whole subplot about her deposing Price and seducing Bixby, which I found unnecessary and distracting.

What’s also distracting is the campy gags which take away from the dread of the original tale and I think demean Smith’s work. For example the  addition of a scene with the goat at the dinner table. In the final act, the gruesome climax is reworked into a mock Black Mass (not in the story) where Carnby and Fern recite the palindromic chant from the Sator Square: SATOR / AREPO / TENET /OPERA / ROTAS. In the commentary it is divulged that Ms. Sterling felt very uneasy about saying it as she believed it was part of a genuine Black Magic rite. In reality, it is a protection spell, dating back to the days of Pompeii, which has since been used for other benevolent uses in it’s many variations.

Unlike Boris Karloff’s Thriller, which I feel did right by many Weird Tales alumni in their adaptations, Night Gallery didn’t seem to give the material proper respect and many potentially interesting teleplays were ruined by camp humor and watering down the fantasy and horror elements so as not to offend or overtax the bland tastes and small minds of their intended audience. Occasionally they came close, but missed the mark more often than not. Even so, as my buddy Chester is wont to say, the book/story is still there for one to enjoy no matter how bad or unrecognizable any given adaptation might be.

On a final note, Smith’s tale was also adapted by comic artist Richard Corben. Unlike his Poe adaptations, he remains more or less faithful to Smith’s tale and retains some of it’s gloomy baroque atmosphere.

A page from the 1992 comic adaptation of the tale by Richard Corben.




J.S. Le Fanu’s “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter”

Posted in Brinsley Le Fanu, Ghost Stories, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Schalcken the Painter (1979), Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on August 6, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

I have been on a bit of a Le Fanu kick these days. J. Sheridan Le Fanu was a master of the Victorian Ghost story. I believe I have mentioned him here before. His most celebrated work is “Carmilla”, which was the inspiration for much of the moodiness and homoeroticism in modern vampire literature and is the indirect impetus behind Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. (A fact which I intend to explain further in another post sometime in the near future).
Even so, Le Fanu has many more great ghost tales to offer and was also an inspiration to M.R. James, the recognized master of the classic ghost tale. One of Le Fanu’s most famous works is “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” (1839), which I had been aware of for decades but had never actually read.

Illustration for “Strange Event in the Life of Schalcken the Painter” by Brinsley Le Fanu from “The Watcher and Other Weird Stories” [1894, Downey & Co., London]

I have no excuse however, as I had it in my Dover edition of “Best Stories of J.S. Le Fanu”, and could have read it any time over the last 25 years or so. I finally decided to read it the other day however and was not disappointed. It is the tale of a painter (Schalcken) who while under the apprenticeship of the “immortal Gerard Douw”, secretly falls in love with his niece, Rose. Although Douw suspects this, he decides his ward would have a better life being married to a rich man and reluctantly gives/sells her to a mysterious and insistent older suitor, Mynher Vanderhausen, for an extravagant sum of money. After the marriage contract is signed, Vanderhausen spirits her off and she isn’t seen or heard from for months. The painter and his master try in vain to find the suitor, whom no one seems to have heard of in his alleged home town, and they despair of ever learning the fate of their beloved Rose until one night she arrives unexpectedly at her guardian’s house in a tizzy making wild claims about her husband, repeatedly exclaiming “The dead and the living cannot be one–God has forbidden it!”. What transpires next is a classic example of subtlety and terror. As an aperitif, there is a hint of Rose’s fate in a dream that Schalcken has wherein he receives a visit from his long lost love. Very chilling stuff. It wasn’t as gruesome as some of his tales can be, but it was definitely creepy, and the fact that the nature of the antagonist or the threat he imposes is never really explained makes it as enigmatic as it is disturbing. This would probably not sit well with some modern readers, who might need more explicit or neatly tied up explanations, but I found the ambiguity very intriguing.

Apparently there is a 1979 BBC adaptation of this story, with an abbreviated title, which is available on DVD. I shall have to try to find a copy of it online and see what they did with it. I have seen some images from it online though and the uncanny look of Mynher Vanderhausen is reproduced exactly as he was described in the story, which is promising.

DVD for BBC adaptation of Le Fanu’s “Schalken the Painter”.

I have also just found a nice copy of the Folio Society’s 1988 hardbound edition of  Le Fanu’s classic Gothic novel “Uncle Silas” illustrated by Charles Stewart, which I intend to review here when I get around to reading it. Look here for more on that in the coming months.

“Black Hymeneal” Reboot

Posted in Black Hymeneal, Gothic Poetry, Gothic Prose with tags , , , on June 16, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

My first poetry collection, “Black Hymeneal”, is back on track. It will not be the beautiful book I envisioned so long ago, but it will at least get out into the world. It shall not feature any specific artwork. Unfortunately, my friend Michele has some pressing familial responsibilities which have taken precedence (understandably) over helping to complete the artwork for the book, so I am going to just continue without it at this point. Perhaps someday we can collaborate on a portfolio of the completed artwork she did for the book, if the collection proves to be successful enough to warrant that. Her lovely artwork deserves to be seen, and I hope some day it will be. I appreciate the hard work she did and the help she gave me in showing me the ropes of the publishing business. I shall never forget her kindness.

The table of contents for the new book has changed, since I have decided to pull a few pieces for another planned collection of song lyrics for my old band, The Dark Young. More on that after I get “Black Hymeneal” into the world.

The new selection is as follows:

01. Manurog
02. Hell-flower
03. Thalia
04. Witch’s Tit
05. Sor Maria and the Devil, Luzbel
06. Krampus
07. Manqueller Manque
08. Moribond
09. Skull in an Ice Cream Cone
11. Broceliande
12. Threnody
13. Black Hymeneal

I have already begun retyping the manuscript and adding new introductions for the poems. My goal was to be ready to publish by my 50th birthday in August. We’ll see if I can make the deadline. Keep your eyes on future posts with updates.

“The Killing Heart” by Zachary Strupp

Posted in Supernatural Thriller, The Killing Heart, Zachary Strupp with tags , , on May 31, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Believe it or not, I have friends. Friends who not only tolerate my creepy inclinations, but share them as well. Yes, and we’re coming to get you…LOL! No, not really, mostly we stay at home to watch Horror movies, eat carbs, and drink beer. Some of my friends are writers like me. I know a few even, who have been published, like my buddy Zach. Zach has published a novel called “Eden”, which is a heart-wrenching tale about a transgender woman trying to find acceptance in the midst of her change. It’s actually a lot lighter than you might think and is actually hard to put down. It’s goes to uncomfortable places, but it’s got laughs and it’s got heart. Which brings us to his latest book, the Killing Heart”.

“The Killing Heart” by Zachary Strupp (2017, Create Space).

Jeffrey Dale is a mess, he spends his days either blacking out or  in a drunken stupor which is broken up by  visions of his dead wife and occasional visits from his cute neighbor and the resident stoner.
One day a new neighbor comes a-knocking, and she is mysterious and very hot, but there is something not right about this woman and soon Jeffrey has a hard time telling reality from fantasy. When bodies start turning up evidence seems to lead to him and all hell breaks loose. Did he commit these horrendous crimes? Is this sexy stranger across the hall  whom she pretends to be? Jeffrey must find out before he gets fingered for these murders.
I don’t want to say much else because it is a short book, more like a novella and I do not wish to give everything away. This is a supernatural thriller which will leave you guessing till the final reveal.
Zachary published this novella a few years back, but has since gone back and re-written it, switching the tense. As one might expect from a self-publishing product, there are a few typos and there are a few instances where he missed the tense switch-over. Even so, the story is gripping and the dialog snappy.
The current cover art is appropriately intense and the book is bound well. No worries about cheap bindings that fall apart.

If you’re looking for something new and exciting to read, do yourself a favor and pick it up on, where it is also available for Kindle.

Tales of Blood: Origins of Mannymärchen

Posted in Angela Carter, Fairy Tales, Gothic Fairy Tales, Märchen, Red as Blood (book), Tanith Lee, The Bloody Chamber (book), The Company of Wolves 1984 with tags , , , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

By now most of you have some inkling of my love for Gothic Horror, but what you may not be as aware of is my love for Fairy Tales and old school Fantasy. As a grown man, I still thrill to find an old edition of the Grimm Brother’s Hausmärchen, especially if it’s illustrated, or a faithful rendition of the tales of Charles Perrault. I even read essays on them by such scholars as Jack Zipes, and Iona & Peter Opie. I love fairy tales, I love their weirdness, and I love their romance.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Jack Zipes ed. (2014 Princeton University Press)

I also love the Victorian authors whose stories for children drew heavily from the genre, like Lewis Carroll or George MacDonald. I always saw potential in there to tell darker tales and looked for stories with the magic of these tales but with more grown up themes. Unfortunately, most adaptations are nothing more than an excuse to sex them up or to throw some unrelated tale together and name-drop some fairy tale character for name recognition.

Then one day I found a book that caught my eye and gave me hope. It was a massmarket paperback of Tanith Lee’s “Red as Blood”. These drew from the fairy tales of my childhood, but reinvented them as quality fantasy tales. The only problem is that Lee, like my other Fantasy fave, Clark Ashton Smith, has a tendency to go full on Fantasy, setting stories in totally made up worlds with exotic names and fanciful creatures. I like my fantasy and horror to have some basis in reality for me to identify with and balance the fantastic element.

“Red as Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer” by Tanith Lee (1983, Daw)

I was intrigued by the idea, but still hadn’t quite gotten there myself. Then I saw the movie “The Company of Wolves”, which mixed the story of Little Red Riding Hood with werewolves. An obvious conceit at first glance, but the script was smart, with humor and the werewolf theme was explored fully as a folkloric creature not a Hollywood trope.

Poster for “The Company of Wolves” (1984).

I was enthralled. It explored some of the latent themes in the original fairy tale of a girl’s coming of age and exploring her burgeoning emotions and desires as she tries to navigate the world around her which is beginning to take notice. All this was there along with the deep folklore surrounding these themes as well as the werewolf legends. In my enthusiasm for the movie I eventually I found out that it was based a couple of stories from the book “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter. In fact, she had written the script for the film. I went on a hunt for this book and I believe I found a copy at the Watersons bookstore on Newberry Street in Boston, which was shut down shortly thereafter when a fire wreaked havoc and destroyed the place in the late 90’s.

“The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories” by Angela Carter (1987, Penguin Books)

I recall jumping to the related stories first: “The Company of Wolves”, “The Werewolf”, and “Wolf Alice”, but it was when I started reading some of the other tales that I began to fall under the spell of Ms Carter and her intoxicating, baroque prose. Every line is carefully crafted. She drops references to history, literature, fashion, cuisine, art, dance, music, she referenced things that I liked and knew about, like obscure decadent authors, but then she hinted at other things that I had yet to discover then wanted to seek out. She was sensual, sometimes explicit, and even vulgar at times, but one forgave her because of the clever or beautiful way she expressed herself. She never shied from Horror and she knew her Gothic tropes. Best of all these were less full on fantasy and more like magical realism, most of the tales took place in an identifiable setting and referenced real things that I could relate to. This also made the fantastic element stand out more and seem all the more marvelous when they appeared.

The clincher however, for me, was “The Lady of the House of Love”, a tale about a female vampire who falls prey to the whims of love. The description of this vampire woman in her lonely abode broke my heart. I wanted to write like this. I have yet to attain her greatness and most likely never will, but I shall try every time I put my pen to paper.

This what I had in mind over 15 years ago when I began writing my own fairytales. I completed 3 tales and began a 4th which is, as of today, still incomplete. I hope to wrap it up someday, but the desert is not much inspiration for such tales. Since my poetry book “Black Hymeneal” is in limbo at present, I am working on a chapbook of these Gothic Fairy Tales, which I plan to call “Mannymärchen” It shall feature the aforementioned tales: “Gothilocks”, “Belladonna”, and “Felo-de-se”, along with an introduction explaining their genesis. I shall attempt to do the cover art, and if that goes well I may try some interior artwork. More on that as things develop.

As a parting thought, I understand Carter wrote an adaptation of “Lady of the House of Love” which she called “Vampirella”. Apparently Neal Jordan had intended to film it but backed out when she passed away. Hopefully someone while pick it up someday and film it. I would love to see it come to life(?).


“The Eyes of My Mother” (2016)

Posted in Art-house film, Independent Horror films, movie review, The Eyes of My Mother 2016 with tags , , , on April 16, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Poster for “The Eyes of My Mother” (2016).

Last night, I saw a little film which really made an impression on me. It is an independent art-house effort called “The Eyes of My Mother” (2016). This movie was beautifully shot, in black & white, and very well acted. The dialog is minimal, but enough to keep one informed of what is going on and to give brief insight into the mind of the main character: a lovely, lonely sociopath named Francisca. It takes place in America (somewhere in rural New York) but much of the dialog is in Portuguese with English subtitles. I cannot say a lot without giving away the plot, but suffice it to say it is very disturbing, but it is neither explicit nor tasteless. Horrible things happen, but mostly off-screen. Even so, some scenes are a bit hard to watch and there are some scenes depicting taboo topics which I understand have made some critics accuse the film of pandering to exploitation. I disagree, however, because the camera never lingers on such things. There are elements of Takashi Miike’s “Audition” (1999), the Ed Gein-inspired “Deranged” (1974) and the Soska sister’s modern body horror classic “American Mary” (2012), but it also has a pathos and a subtlety which is unique unto itself. I recommend it if you are not squeamish or easily offended.

Peter S Beagle’s “In Calabria”

Posted in In Calabria, Peter S Beagle, unicorns with tags , , on April 14, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

A few months ago, I was browsing in a Barnes & Noble when a book on a display caught my eye. It was a smallish book, octavo size (my favorite), a lovely deep green color  (hunter green?) and it had what looked to be an image from a mediaeval tapestry of a unicorn in a pen.

“In Calabria” by Peter S Beagle [2017, Tachyon].

Upon closer inspection I found it to be the latest book by Peter S Beagle, the fantasy author whose most famous book, “The Last Unicorn” was made into an animated feature which is a favorite of many young lovers of fantasy. Although I own a copy of the book, as well as some of his other works, I have never read any of it because I always considered it to be a children’s book. I have read other children’s books in my adult years, but I guess the cartoon actually turned me off rather than made me want to read it. Still, I was intrigued by this beautiful book. Wary of paying full price for anything unless I am 100% certain that I want it in my collection, I held off on purchasing it, but put in a hold request for it at my local library.

The other day I received a message that it had arrived, so I checked it out. Since I tend to vegetate in front of the TV when I return from work at night, I brought it with me to work thinking that I would read it  throughout the week on my coffee breaks. Once I cracked open the book I could barely stand to put it down for the phone calls I must translate. It began a bit naively and a little too picturesque, a foreigner’s vision of life in a Southern Italian village, but it grew on me. The protagonist, Bianchi, is a short, middle-aged, grumpy farmer who lives alone with his animals, shunning society and writing poetry by night who reminded me a bit of myself. Although I am probably too lazy in my ways to run a farm, I would love to retire to the countryside to commune with nature and write.

His only point of regular contact with the rest of the village is his mailman, Romano, who suspects there is more to him than meets the eye. He is aware of Bianchi’s poetic endeavors and teases him about it, but the farmer is unyielding in his recalcitrance. Romano informs Bianchi that he is training his 23 year-old sister, Giovanna, to share his duties and that he should expect to see her soon. Bianchi is dismissive and goes back to his business.

Bianchi’s business is interrupted when he discovers a unicorn on his property. At first, he only sees it briefly before it vanishes, but eventually he is permitted to see it regularly and even approach it. He finds that it is a female and it is pregnant. He vows to protect it and keep it’s presence a secret. With the advent of this magical creature, he becomes inspired to write a lot more poetry and of a superior quality to his previous output. His life begins to revolve around his farm work and taking care of the unicorn.

One day Giovanna shows up at the farm. Wanting to see Bianchi who doesn’t greet her at the roadside to pick up his mail, she ventures onto the farm and finds him tending to the unicorn. She is overwhelmed. The unicorn however, has allowed herself to be seen, which says something. Giovanna swears to keep Bianchi’s secret and she gets him to agree to keep her in the loop and to talk to her every night on the phone to check in on the unicorn’s progress, since she only delivers the mail once a week.

Eventually, love blossoms between the unlikely pair and all seems wonderful until the secret of the unicorn gets out and the farm is swarmed by nosy villagers, media, animal rights groups, and eventually the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia).  Bianchi must step up and protect his animals, his mythical guest and his new love, but is he up for the task?

This is a magical book. I had a hard time keep my composure while reading some of the more emotional portions of the story. The love affair is touching albeit unlikely. It hit a bit close to home since I have been in similar May-December romances which weren’t as successful as depicted here. I find the unicorn more believable than that part of the tale. The text is peppered with Italian word and phrases, but most times one can surmise their import through context. The tale is a bit gritty in spots and comes off more as a tale of magical realism that straight fantasy. Bianchi lives a hermit’s life in a remote location, but is still living in the 21st century. The only fantastic element is the unicorn. The language is at times frank and realistic, and some situations are not the sort one might expect to find in a tale about magical creatures. There is some violence which gets a bit graphic in spots, but it is not gratuitous and Beagle does not linger on it.

I read this book in one day and loved it. It is a lot different than what I expected and I am glad I listened to my intuition and looked into it. There is much here for lovers of fantasy, as well as a well-told tale. The prose is poetic without being too self-conscious and the story is heartwarming but not cloying. I highly recommend it.