Gentle Giant’s “Octopus”

Posted in Album Review, Gentle Giant, Octopus (album), Prog-Rock, regal (instrument) with tags , , , , on January 30, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Lately I’ve been going back to listening to CD’s during my work commute, since my new job is a little further from my home than I have been used to these past few years. One of the CD’s that has been finding a lot of play is the 1973 album “Octopus”, by Gentle Giant. I have been a fan of this band since I was a teenager, and this album has always had a special place in my heart. It is unique in the it has had a couple of different and yet equally significant album covers. The original, designed by renowned artist Roger Dean, whose name will forever be associated with the group Yes because of all of the album covers he did for them during their heyday, and depicted an underwater scene that featured a giant octopus.

 

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Japanese mini-LP reproduction of the original cover.

The US version of the cover featured a die-cut image of an octopus in a jar. Later releases dispensed with the die-cut.

 

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US album cover; initial pressings had a die-cut of the jar.

The album itself is a flawless mixture of early music, modern art music, and good ol’ British Prog-Rock.

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A page from “The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Rabelais illustrated by Frank C. Pape, circa 1900.

 

Lyrical themes vary from the meeting of Gargantua & Panagruel from the Rabelais book La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (the second time they had referenced this 16th century satire; the first being “The Nativity of Pantagruel” on 1971’s “Acquiring the Taste”), a backhanded tribute to their roadies entitled “A Dog’s Life” which featured a solo from a portable reed organ called a regal. It sounds almost comical, and suggests to me the gait of a bedraggled cur.

 

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A 20th century regal based on an instrument from the 16th century.

 

There is “Knots”, which is a tribute to the circuitous writings of psychiatrist R.D. Laing. To emphasize the tortuous nature of the lyrics the vocals are arranged in a round with three voices singing the same line, but starting at different times to create an infinite canon, interspersed with quirky riffs and a xylophone solo.

 

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“Knots” by R.D. Laing (1972, Vintage).

 

“A Cry for Everyone”, a sobering lyric on accepting the inevitability of death, is apparently influenced by the writings of Albert Camus.

 

Not everything on “Octopus” is so heady or quirky; there are some normal (for Gentle Giant) Prog-Rock tunes, and there is even a nice ballad by organist Kerry Minnear. Surprisingly, “Octopus” is one of Gentle Giant’s most popular albums and a medley of the main themes, entitled “Excerpts from Octopus” was a regular concert feature throughout most of their career. Before the resurgence of interest in their music in the early oughts, which lead to several re-issues and re-masterings of their main catalog, “Octopus” and its predecessor, “Three Friends” were still in print from Columbia Records in the US well into the 90’s. Most recently, it has been re-issued with a brand new mix by Steven Wilson, whose job it seems these days is to remix every classic Prog album ever made. He has revamped the catalogs of King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull, and most recently he has worked his mixing magic on Yes. So far, I mostly like his mixes, although I am still glad that the original album mixes are usually available side-by-side in the deluxe re-packaging.

 

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Gentle Giant circa 1973.

 

“Octopus” remains one of my favorite albums to this day and I do not believe we will ever see or hear the likes of it again, at least not until someone new comes around with the group’s eclecticism and consummate musicianship, as well as a willingness to make the music they want to hear without kowtowing to the pressures of the music industry and contemporary stylistic trends.

For more info on “Octopus” and everything else Gentle Giant, go to their website at http://www.blazemonger.com/GG/Gentle_Giant_Home_Page

 

 

Goodbye 2016, and Good Riddance!

Posted in 2016, Black Hymeneal, Dick Kelly, Gothilocks, Krampus, Michele Bledsoe, year in review with tags , , , , , , on December 25, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas
Goodbye 2016, and Good Riddance! It may be a bit early yet to be assessing the past 12 months, but I don’t foresee much of any consequence happening between then and now. 2016 was to be a year of promise, a year for turning things around. Instead, I spent most of the year coasting and waiting for change to happen. I had planned to complete and publish my book, “Black Hymeneal”, but made very little progress at all, despite the help of a few good friends, while several of my colleagues from the local poetry scene put out their 2nd or 3rd books. I was going to go back and finish up some of the many unfinished works I have floundering in limbo, but I only managed to finish one, and added several more works to the unfinished pile. In fact, I wrote very little this year. Aside from my journal, which I write in almost every day, and some odd lines of doggerel, I did very little writing despite having some genuinely good ideas. I fear that I cannot rightly call myself a writer anymore because I do not write.
As I have mentioned before, I suffer from anxiety and depression, which holds me back from doing the things I love. I do see a counselor, which helps, but I am loathe to take medication because of the adverse side effects. I also fear it might block the creative juices. I may have to rethink that though, because I don’t know how much time I have and I have too much unfinished business to attend to before I go and I can’t let my anxiety hold me back.
This year, despite my anxiety, I took a leap of faith and on a tip from a friend left my bookstore job to work at a local mortuary. I was a “removal technician” for 3 weeks. My job was to pick up “decedents” from wherever they might be (hospitals, hospices, and even private residences) and transport them to a care facility for processing before they go on to their final destination. It is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination, and I respect the folks who can do it without the repercussions I faced. The physical demands alone were intense, even with tricks and tools of the trade, and I was often in serious pain after one of my 4 weekly 10 hour shifts.
What got me, however, was the human factor. I thought that with my interest in funerary ritual and with the right attitude, I could make a career out of this job. What I didn’t count on was my empathy. I couldn’t deal with the grieving families or even the people who died alone with no one around to send them off into the great abyss. I would look at the pathetic husks of human remains and think, “Is this all we are?”
I would obsess all day over this before my graveyard shift of 7 pm to 5 am. Many times I would worry about losing my loved ones, like the time I picked up someone at a hospital morgue with the same exact name as someone from my extended family. I knew it wasn’t them, but it made me think about when I would have to pick up someone I knew. I thought a lot about my own mortality, and would have panic attacks.
Worst of all, I dreaded picking up dead children and messy cadavers, which they called “nasties”. As part of my training I was taken to the “decomp” cooler where they kept corpses in advance states of decay, or messy bodies, like gnarly accident or murder victims, so that I could accustom myself to the sights and smells. It wasn’t too bad, something like looking at a gruesome picture of a crime scene or a horror film, but I didn’t have to touch them, like I would on a run. And then there was the smell…
The smell of death, a distinct pungent smell unlike anything else, began to follow me everywhere I went, even to places it could not possibly be, and whenever I talked about my new job with friends, I would break down in tears. In desperation to save my situation from getting worse, I lit a votive candle with the image of the Santa Muerte and implored Her to help me to find the courage and strength to take on this sacred task of helping the dead in their last voyage, but to no avail.
An Internet stock photo of the vela I used. I got mine from a local Frys supermarket of all places.

An Internet stock photo of the vela I used. I got mine from a local Frys supermarket of all places.

After 3 weeks of this, I quit. I had informed them of the possibility of me leaving a week prior, but when I did it was overnight. I had other reasons for wanting to go so suddenly, like how I didn’t fit in with my colleagues, and felt like they weren’t helping me get trained properly before they tried sending me off on my own, but really, the main reason was Thanatophobia a/k/a “Death Anxiety”. Anyone whom has read my poetry, especially such pieces as “Moribond” or even my beloved “Black Hymeneal”, knows my obsession with, and fear of, death. I thought I could use this job to help get past it, but it only intensified it.
The next few weeks were spent applying for jobs and trying not to spend too much money. I finally got a job working at a company that does closed captioning phone service for the hard of hearing. I haven’t started yet, but I am hopeful it will work out.
Twice in recent months I have had family members warn me of becoming bitter. I admit, I am not as hopeful as I have been in the past, and I have developed some negatively fatalistic attitudes about my life, in particular where my love life is concerned, but I don’t think I am quite there just yet.
Speaking of my love life, there is nothing going on there, which has surprised the heck out of me. I thought that within 6 months or so, I would be over my last amorous fiasco and finding solace with someone who would be less judgmental of me and more willing to settle down. Boy, was I wrong. I haven’t met anyone else in over a year with whom I would feel even a little compatible. That’s not to say that I haven’t met people I’ve liked, they just were not available to me or would have been unwise choices to get involved with. With my 50th birthday coming next summer, I fear that I may have to accept the fact that whatever time I have left in this life will be spent alone.
Perhaps this is for the better. I have heard a few times lately that attachments make one vulnerable and distracted. I need to stay focused if I hope to finish all the work I have planned for next year.
I also have family around me, who love me, and a handful of good friends, and that is what gets me through the day. I have come to realize that in this all too brief life of uncertainty and misery that is the only thing that matters.
Etching by artist Dick Kelly for an upcoming illustrated edition of my Krampus poem.

Etching by artist Dick Kelly for an upcoming illustrated edition of my Krampus poem.

On a final note, I am working on putting together a chapbook of my poem “Gruss vom Krampus” with the help of my good friend, artist Dick Kelly. The illustrations he has done already are amazing, and I cannot wait to see how it all fits together. If it goes well, and if we can recover some of the costs in printing it through sales, I am hoping to make more like it; perhaps a story this time, like “Gothilocks”. We’ll see.
Photo os me with my new hair cut, holding the card I made with the help of a very talented friend, for my parent's th anniversary.

Photo of me with my new hair cut, holding the card I made with the help of a very talented friend, for my parent’s 50th anniversary.

PS: I cut my hair, which I hadn’t done for 7 years, and I like the way it looks. Surprisingly, I look a bit younger, and although I’m still spending my nights alone, it has garnered me a bit more attention from the ladies than previously. Looking towards the future, let’s hope it’s brighter and better than 2016.
P.P.S.: I still intend to publish an e-book version of “Black Hymeneal” with alternate cover art and no illustrations just to get it out there into the world. Eventually, however, I hope to put out the version I originally planned featuring the amazing artwork of my good friend artist Michele Bledsoe.

John Bellairs’ Gothic Mysteries for Kids

Posted in Children's Books, Chubby Lewis Barnavelt, Edward Gorey, John Bellairs, Johnny Dixon and the Professor, Mercer Mayer, Rose Rita with tags , , , , , on July 17, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas

One of the perks of working at a bookstore is that one usually finds like-minded souls to share one’s literary interests with. One such person for me, is my friend Denise. Denise shares my interest in the macabre and particularly that special niche of speculative fiction for young adults. Denise and I are both fans of the renowned illustrator Edward Gorey and we are both amateur collectors of publications featuring his artwork and droll contes cruels. Whenever one or the other of us finds a decent copy of a Gorey book or at least one which features his artwork on the cover, we pick it up and if we have it, we offer it to the other for inclusion in their collection. In one of our many discussions about Gorey books, Denise asked me if I had ever read the John Bellairs’ books for young adults, many of which featured covers and illustrations by Edward Gorey . I was not familiar with them so she recommended I check him out.

Apparently, before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there were John Bellairs’ Gothic mysteries for children. The formula consisted of an awkward child (usually a bookish boy, although there is one offshoot book dedicated to a young female friend of one of the boys from a main series) who finds himself involved in some sort of supernatural mystery which he solves with the occasional assistance of an adult guardian.

Gorey cover for "The House with a Clack in It's Walls".

Gorey cover for “The House with a Clack in It’s Walls” (1973).

His first book was “The House with a Clock in It’s Walls”, which has since become a widely read children’s classic. This was the first book in the Lewis Barnavelt series (popularly known as the “Chubby Lewis Barnavelt” series), which was followed by two more books, one of which was the aforementioned offshoot featuring Lewis’ best friend, Rose Rita. After this point, Bellairs was assisted by author Brad Strickland, who later took over the series entirely after his death. The same goes for his other major Series, Johnny Dixon and the Professor.

Rose Rita spills the beans to Uncle Jonathan in "The Figure in the Shadows" (Illustration by Mercer Mayer, 1975).

Rose Rita spills the beans to Uncle Jonathan in “The Figure in the Shadows” (Illustration by Mercer Mayer, 1975).

I wish I knew about these books when I was a lad, because they would have been right up my alley. There are witches, warlocks, ghosts, mummies, ancient curses, you name it. The books are like the Rowling books, entertaining, but not afraid to show the darker side of childhood. Lewis is an orphan, and Johnny Dixon’s mother is dead, and his father is a fighter pilot in the Korean War. These children usually are taken in by friendly family members  who love them and provide them with chocolate chip cookies and an emotional anchor to grab onto in between their fantastic forays into fighting the dark forces.

Lewis Barnavelt sips a warm drink with his Uncle Jonathan and their neighbor Florence Zimmerman, who happens to be a good witch. (Illustration by Edward Gorey, from "The House with a Clock in It's Walls").

Lewis Barnavelt sips a warm drink with his Uncle Jonathan and their neighbor Florence Zimmerman, who happens to be a good witch. (Illustration by Edward Gorey, from “The House with a Clock in It’s Walls”).

Reading them as an adult, I am surprised just how dark they get; in “The Figure in the Shadows” (1975) for instance, the spirit of a dead necromancer tries to possess Lewis’ body so he can re-enter the physical world and continue his maleficia. Fortunately, Bellairs provides some moments of levity sprinkled throughout so the books don’t end up traumatizing their target audience.

Not everything is about fighting monsters though. The main characters deal with real life issues as well. There are bullies to dealt with and lessons aplenty on personal responsibility, dealing with loss, etc..

"The Figure in the Shadows" (cover art by Mercer Mayer, 1975).

“The Figure in the Shadows” (cover art by Mercer Mayer, 1975).

One of my favorite things about the books are the illustrations and the cover art. Most of the first editions of the original books featured cover art by Edward Gorey, who usually provided an illustration for the frontispiece as well. Other notable illustrators are Mercer Mayer, who did the cover and some illustrations for “The Figure in the Shadows”, and “The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring” featured artwork by Richard Egielski.

Most of the popular titles got a new look featuring cover art by Bart Goldman, which are okay, but they’re too flashy and lack the dark subtlety of the Gorey covers or even the Mercer Meyer. They do however retain the original inside illustrations.

Frontispiece illustration by Edward Gorey for "The Curse of the Blue Figurine" (1983).

Frontispiece illustration by Edward Gorey for “The Curse of the Blue Figurine” (1983).

If you’re interested, I recommend starting with “The House with a Clock in It’s Walls”, although Denise would tell you instead to start with “The Curse of the Blue Figurine” (1983), which is the first book of the Johnny Dixon series. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

My Lost Book Review: The Dark Eidolon

Posted in Clark Ashton Smith, S.T. Joshi, Uncategorized with tags , , on July 5, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas
A while back, the bookstore I work for asked the staff to write book reviews for the new website they were creating. They had to be brief, and on titles which were likely to be carried at one of our numerous locations. I chose “The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies” by Clark Ashton Smith. Unfortunately, the way the log in is set up on the computers at work, the credit for the review went to the last person to submit one, so my piece is attributed to another employee. To rectify this, I am reposting it here for you all to peruse.
Dark
Tagline: Excellent introduction to this macabre bard of the weird

“Clark Ashton Smith was an artist, sculptor, author and poet, known mostly today through his association with Horror icon H.P. Lovecraft. Although Smith did dabble in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos during his tenure with Weird Tales magazine, he was a master storyteller and wordsmith in his own right, specializing in exquisitely written fantasy tales and poems which smack of 19th century Orientalism and Gothic Horror. Featuring a generous selection of his sublime short stories, prose poems and metered verse, this collection by Penguin Classics, replete with an enlightening introduction and copious explanatory notes by Weird Tales scholar S.T. Joshi, is a great introduction to this macabre bard from the Golden Age of Pulp.”

Walpurgis Night

Posted in Bram Stoker, Dracula, Dracula's Guest, Gothic Poetry, Gothic Prose with tags , , , , , , on April 30, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Tonight is Walpurgis Night, named after the English Medieval missionary, St. Walpurga, who first brought Christianity to the Germanic people. Her feast day is May 1st, and the eve of the day, April 30th, is often celebrated with dancing and reveling. Somewhere along the line this reveling became identified with the Witch’s Sabbath and Walpurgisnacht, as it is known in Germany, became a night of ill omens and devilry.

Sometime in the early 90’s I wrote a prose piece entitled “Walpurgis Night”, which was inspired by 2 things: one was a stencil someone had sprayed on the wall of my favorite pizza joint on Newbury Street in Boston, which read “Walpurgis Night” in black letters. I always assumed it was a local Goth or Metal band, but brief online research has revealed nothing that I can find. I was later to find, after the fact however, that one of my favorite bands, Black Sabbath, had originally intended their song “War Pigs” to be called “Walpurgis”. Both video and audio documentation of an early version of the song featuring a more lyrical emphasis on the black mass imagery has been available for some time now for public consumption. They had even decided to call the album “Walpurgis”, but the record executives thought it sounded too Satanic, so they toned down the devil imagery and made the newly titled song “War Pigs” into more of an anti-war tune. Of course, when they came up with “Paranoid”, they scrambled to promote that instead as the single and the new title of  the album, the artwork for which still played off of the “War Pigs” theme and confused a lot of stoners back in the day.

The other inspiration, which will be apparent to anyone who is familiar with it, is Bram Stoker’s short story, “Dracula’s Guest”, which was an excised early draft chapter from the original novel.

“Walpurgis Night” is far from my best work, and a little hokey in retrospect, some 25 or so years down the line, but it is an indication of where my creative writing would eventually go.

And so, without further ado, I present to you my prose poem “Walpurgis Night”…

"Walpurgisnacht" by Johannes Praetorius (1668).

“Walpurgisnacht” by Johannes Praetorius (1668).

Your friend is a fool, and shall die as such. You Englishmen, so arrogant! Where is the precious Crown for him now? His impressively  untainted lineage will mean nothing to the wolves. All blood tastes the same to them, blue or otherwise; but that is the least of his worries.

He would indeed be fortunate if it were only the wolves whom he met with.  For there are myriad other creatures which shall be roaming the lonely roads tonight, far more horrible than they. The dead shall rise and the witches shall be reveling in their sabbats and rutting rituals, and the Light Bearer shall hold sway.

Not a one of  my men would go out on this of all nights to search for any man, no matter what the price. For you see, tonight is a night for prayers, garlic rubbing, and door bolting. Tonight my friend, is Walpurgis Night!

“H.P.L. R.I.P.” (A Tribute to H.P. Lovecraft)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 29, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Beyond the Wall of Sleep, in atramentous bardo

Shuddersome scenes replay, endlessly, in eldritch tableau

May Eve at Meadow Hill, revelers chant their baleful song

“Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat with a Thousand Young!”

Innsmouth maids lie with frogs, to breed an amphibian race

Hominine at first till time shows their Demi-Deep-One face

Richard Upton Pickman, with exceptional ghoulish flair

Paints his nightmare visions ensconced within his North End lair

At the bale libraries of Miskatonic U.

The Necronomicon is stored and kept away from view

On an uncharted isle, in non-Euclidean crumble

Constrained Cthulhu waits to return as mankind trembles

Whilst misanthropic Old Ones plot in aphotic space, their scheming

In his grave at Swan Point, dead H.P. Lovecraft waits dreaming

H.P. Lovecraft, depicted as an 18th century poet, by Virgil Finlay.

H.P. Lovecraft, depicted as an 18th century poet, by Virgil Finlay.

Charles L. Grant’s “The Dark Cry of the Moon” (1986)

Posted in "The Dark Cry of the Moon", "The Soft Whisper of the Dead", Berkley Books, Charles L. Grant, Donald M. Grant Publisher, Oxrun Station Series, R.J. Krupowicz, werewolf novels with tags , , , , , , on April 9, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Published in 1986, “The Dark Cry of the Moon” is the second book in the Oxrun trilogy, which takes place in historical Oxrun Station. Each of the books in the trilogy features a classic monster. In the first installment, “The Soft Whisper of the Dead”, the villains are vampires; in the second, “The Dark Cry of the Wolf”, the monster is a werewolf.

"The Dark Cry o the Moon" 1986 Donald M. Grant Publisher.

“The Dark Cry o the Moon” 1986, Donald M. Grant Publisher.

The story picks up a generation or so after the first book. The are no recurring characters, although a few do seem to be descended from a few of the protagonists of the previous tale. The town doctor, John Webber bears his progenitor’s name, and the new chief of police, Lucas Stockton, is apparently the son of Detective Ned Stockton, and has even named his own young, Ned, son after his father.

As in “The Soft Whisper of the Dead”, the hero policeman and his plucky sweetheart race against time to figure out who is perpetrating the horrible murders which have upset peace in the sleepy town of Oxrun Station. There does seem to be a formula here, but it is well-executed nevertheless.

There is a wise old gypsy woman, Lucas Stockton’s faithful housekeeper Maria Andropayous, apparently modeled after the character Maleva from the Universal Studios Wolf Man movies of the 1940’s, who is steeped in arcane lore and spouts cryptic warnings. “The wolf,” she said, “walks on two legs.” [pg. 40]

There are several references to wolfsbane throughout the story. In this tale, the blooming of wolfsbane in the moonlight indicates the nearby presence of a werewolf. This is also mentioned in the Universal films, but has some precedent in the classical poem “Metamorphoses”, by Ovid. It tends to pop up now and then in supernatural fiction and film, but its uses vary. Universal used it, under its other name, aconite, as a vampire deterrent in “Dracula” (1931).

Odd that with so many references to the Universal films, Grant’s essay “A Foreword for Those Who Remember Ralph Bates” seems to focus on the Hammer films. Then again, I don’t recall having read it, so perhaps he does give them a “shout out” in there, as the kids say.

There is a bit more mystery in this book, and with all of the red herrings, I honestly couldn’t recall who the werewolf was until only a few chapters from the end of the book. The story is good, with likeable characters, as well as a few highly unlikable ones. It is fast-paced, much like its predecessor, and really reads like a classic horror film. The book is lavishly illustrated by R.J. Krupowicz, who did such an awesome job on “The Soft Whisper of the Dead”, although this time, he left out the red highlights, which were so eye-catching in the previous book. This would be the last book he would illustrate for this series. The follow up, “The Long Night of the Grave” was illustrated by artist Jill Bauman, whose style is much less baroque.

Paperback edition of "The Dark Cry of the Moon" (1987, Berkley Books).

Paperback edition of “The Dark Cry of the Moon” (1987, Berkley Books).

Unfortunately, even though the book looks lovely, there are many typos. I had spotted one or two minor ones in “The Soft Whisper of the Dead”, but there were many in this volume and for a pricey collectible I believe Donlad M Grant Publishers should have taken more care to weed these out. Even so, I highly recommend this novel and I believe that if you can afford it, the Donald M. Grant hardcover is the way to go, if only for the lovely dust jacket and interior artwork by R.J. Krupowicz.