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Friday, August 29, 2014

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is a “1952 American comedy horror science fiction film directed by William Beaudine and starring horror veteran Bela Lugosi and nightclub comedians Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo.” In the 74 minute black and white movie “two goofy entertainers meet a mad scientist on a jungle island.”

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla was directed by William “One Shot” Beaudine. Beaudine earned his nickname because he was super cheap and was well known for using “even the worse takes in a finished film.”

The movie stars legendary film great Bela Lugosi. By 1952, though, Bela Lugosi’s film career had been in a long decline because of his addiction to morphine. He had not worked for years. But Realart Pictures, Inc. (the company that produced Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla) had recently reissued many of Bela’s old horror films from his time at Universal in the 1920s and 1930s and Bela was enjoying a resurgence of popularity. Realart cast Bela in the new film to take advantage of his renewed popularity. They even changed the title of the film. The original title was to be White Woman of the Lost Jungle but the ten-year-old son of Realart’s co-owner suggested the Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla title and the producer agreed.

Also starring in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is the comedy team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. Sammy Petrillo was only 17-years-old at the time the film was made. Sammy had been “discovered” by a trade school hair stylist who gave the teenaged Sammy a free haircut then remarked that he looked just like nightclub and film comedian Jerry Lewis. At the time, Sammy did not know who Jerry Lewis was (Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin had just made their second movie together) but people kept remarking on the resemblance. So Sammy watched a Jerry Lewis - Dean Martin movie and realized he did resemble Lewis and could also do a Jerry Lewis type voice. Sammy finagled a meeting with Jerry Lewis and was hired to play a baby in a sketch with Jerry Lewis. Sammy was also signed with Lewis’s talent agency. But his career hopes quickly dimmed when he was unable to find any work. A comment by an entertainment insider made Sammy and his father realize that Jerry Lewis and his agency were keeping Sammy on the shelf and out of work because Jerry Lewis really did not like immitators. Sammy managed to get out of his contract and was finally able to find some work.

Sammy Petrillo met Duke Mitchell through a comedian friend. Sammy and Duke formed a nightclub act where they impersonated the much more famous Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin comedy act. Jack Broder, the co-owner of Realart Pictures, Inc. saw Sammy and Duke and thought they were hilarious. He signed them to what was supposed to be a series of Duke and Sammy films. Jerry Lewis was furious when he found out and confronted Jack Broder in a screaming match in Broder’s own office. Jerry Lewis’s studio, Paramount Pictures, threatened to sue Jack Broder and Realart. Sammy later admitted that he suspected that Broder never really intended to make the Brooklyn Gorilla movie at all but had expected Paramount Pictures to buy him off. However, a deal between the two studios fell through and so Broder went ahead with the film, though the prospective Sammy and Duke film series never materialized.

After Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, Sammy and Duke returned to working in nightclubs but a vindictive Jerry Lewis continued to use his contacts to “blackball” them. In one instance, Sammy and Duke were booked on a TV comedy show hosted by comedy greats Abbott and Costello. Just before the show aired, Costello came to them and told them that he had been told that NBC refused to allow Sammy and Duke to appear on the show. Sammy claimed that Costello felt so bad about what happened that he payed them even though they could not actually appear.

Eventually Sammy and Duke ended their comedy partnership. Duke Mitchell stayed in show business doing nightclub and film work (he was the “singing voice” of Fred Flintstone in The Flintstones cartoon). Duke died  of lung cancer at age 55 on December 2, 1981. Sammy Petrillo also continued to work in show business, working in film and TV. In his later years, Sammy ran a family-oriented comedy club named The Nut House in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Sammy died of cancer at age 74 on August 15, 2009.  

In the film Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (alternate title in some areas: The Boys from Brooklyn), Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell are a comedy act who were on their way to put on a show for USA troops stationed at the USA island territory of Guam. Duke and Sammy describe how they ended up lost:

  • Duke says, “We were in a plane high over the Pacific. Sammy goes to look for the powder room and he couldn’t find it. I went there to show him. I walk through the wrong door, like a dope he follows me.” “Yeah,” Sammy continues, “lucky thing we had our parachutes.”

Friendly islanders take the boys in and provide them with clothes, food, and a luau complete with song and dance as well as pretty island women. Duke quickly sets his sights on the chief’s lovely daughter Nona (who has been educated in the USA) while the chief’s younger daughter, Saloma, sets her sights on an extremely reluctant Sammy. The next day, Nona takes the boys to a nearby estate where Doctor Zabor (Bela Lugosi) lives and conducts scientific experiments. Nona helps Dr. Zabor in his lab but doesn’t realize that the doctor is hopelessly in love with her. Dr. Zabor immediately notices the attraction between Nona and Duke and decides to do away with his romantic rival by adding Duke to his experiments. Will Sammy figure out what has happened to Duke? Will Sammy be able to help Duke reverse the effects of the experiment? Will Dr. Zabor succeed in his dastardly plan?

Poor Bela Lugosi seems old and tired in this movie. He manages to muster a few diabolical glares and menacing smiles but they just seem to be shadows of his younger and more energetic self. Sammy and Duke make use of Bela’s legendary persona without naming any names in an early skit:

  • Nona says, “Dr. Zabor is a very brilliant man.” But Sammy is not so sure, “Brilliant man, huh? Anybody who’d live in a creep joint like this must be a moronic idiot.” Just then Dr. Zabor enters, “Good morning, I’m Dr. Zabor. Welcome to my… creep joint.” Duke says, “Don’t I know you from some where?” “I don’t think so,” replies Dr. Zabor. Sammy whispers, “Psst, Dukey. Come here. I think I know where you know this guy from.” “Where?” asks Duke. Sammy says, “Ain’t this the fella that goes around with the hands (makes claw hands) and the faces (grimaces), biting people on the neck and wearing capes?” “You’re crazy!” retorts Duke. “Watch out for bats!” Sammy yells.

Duke Mitchell sings two pleasant but forgettable songs during the movie. His voice is nice but nothing spectacular. Sammy Petrillo does look and sound like Jerry Lewis but Sammy manages to seem even more loud and grating. His “Jerry Lewis” laugh could sand paper a two-by-four. I really did not like the way Sammy kept insulting and rejecting his island inamorata, Saloma, just because she was not as svelte as her sister Nona. Both women are very pretty but their roles are not much more than eye candy.

Ramona the Chimp is played by Cheeta from the Tarzan movies and looks effortlessly cute and adorable. The gorilla costumes are better quality than those in a few other movies I’ve seen and I thought it was a hoot when one gorilla started singing one of Duke’s songs.

When actor Martin Landau played Bela Lugosi in the 1994 film Ed Wood, he watched Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla as part of his research on Bela. Martin Landau said he was stunned and appalled and thought the Brooklyn Gorilla movie was so bad “it made the Ed Wood films look like Gone With the Wind (1939).” One reviewer wrote that Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla had “an absolutely awful script which has branded this film as one of the worst comedies of all time.” I did not think our movie was any where near that bad but it certainly was not a shining star in Bela Lugosi’s filmography. Yes, Bela looks tired. Yes, Sammy is a loud, brassy Jerry Lewis wannabe. But there are some funny lines and a few laugh out loud moments.

Here are a few movie moments I enjoyed:

  • The opening narration is a ridiculous take on all the thousands of badly-made educational films out in movie land - “This is the jungle. The vast wilderness of giant lush follage, the tropical birds, and fierce animal life.”
  • Nona explains where they are, “The island of Kola Kola.” “Kola Kola?” asks Duke. “Sounds like a commercial for some bubble water,” snickers Sammy.
  • Duke is fed up with Sammy’s silliness, “You know, some day, I’m gonna let you fry in your own grease!” “Could you make it chicken fat, maybe?” says Sammy.
  • Sammy does his comedy act for the islanders, “As you know this is my first visit to your beautiful island of Kola Kola and I wanna tell you that the climate is wonderful. Really makes a guy feel full of Pepsi. Get it? Cola, Pepsi.”
  • Nona makes a good point, “Some day I will be queen of this island. My people would like their queen to be smart.”
  • Sammy is not impressed, “This looks like Death not only took a holiday, but he got a hangover from taking it.”
  • Dr. Zabor examines Sammy, “A most interesting cranium. Strange, but interesting,”
  • Duke has an excuse for Sammy, “Don’t mind my friend. He has a one-syllable brain.”
  • To explain his experiments, Dr. Zabor launches on a confusing gabble of techno babble that rivals anything ever heard on any of the Star Trek shows. Then Sammy jabbers in response.
  • Sammy is confused, “Oh, this is all very confusing.” A few minutes later he is horrified, “Dukey! What have they done to you? How did you get like that?” Then Sammy tries to comfort Duke, “Aw, don’t cry, Dukey. Just think what a sensation we’ll be when we get back. I can see it all now: ‘Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell the Singing Gorilla!’ ”
  • ‘Saloma’ greets Sammy, “Where’s my little Tarzan? Hi ya, doll!”

Overall, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is a comedy horror movie that is light on comedy and completely lacking in any horror. I enjoyed watching Bela Lugosi although it was sad to see his decline. Duke Mitchell is pleasant but bland and Sammy Petrillo is a great Jerry Lewis immitator but he also magnifies the annoying, raucous sounds of Jerry Lewis’s voice.

Ramona the Chimp is cute and the gorilla is funny and not frightening at all. Dr. Zabor does wave a rifle around towards the end of the film and Sammy appears to have been shot but there is really nothing to frighten younger movie fans. I thought the ending was a bit of a cop out but other movie fans may enjoy the way the film ends.

The film is in black and white but the visual quality is good although a little faded and blurry in places. The sound quality is excellent. At only 74 minutes long, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla keeps a nice pace throughout the film.

Of course, the very best thing about Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is that it is FREE in the Public Domain.

Please click this link and go to the Internet Archive to download and watch Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.  


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Be excellent to each other

A five-word-long twitter post this week from Gen inspired me to write this post for our blog.

"Be excellent to each other."

It's a simplified version of the golden rule - do to others what you would have them do to you - and as is often the case, I think simpler is better. I know what you're thinking, "But, how is it simpler than the golden rule??"

The golden rule gets bogged down in philosophers doing what philosophers do best - overthink things. Philosophers have taken a simple encouragement to be nice to each other, an expression that is easily understood, and derived all kinds of problems and horrible hypotheticals.

What if the way you want to be treated isn't the way someone else wants to be treated? Who are we to assume how another person would like to be treated?

There's the obligation of reciprocation. Under this ethic, you would be expected to treat others the way they treat you. It's what follows from treating others the way you want to be treated, you expect that treatment in return. Maybe you don't want to. Maybe you think they don't deserve the same treatment. Maybe they really don't deserve the same treatment. Maybe you think they deserve better treatment. Maybe that person doesn't want to be treated in the way you want to treat them.

Then there's the silver rule - Do not treat others in the way you don't want to be treated. It's a different take on the same idea that emphasises the negative, leaving the positive side of it open for personal interpretation. The obvious problem with this one is that it doesn't set the bar very high for the standard of how we treat one another.

See? philosophers get involved, and such a simple thing gets all messy and confusing and dissatisfying.

Then there are all the religions that try to lay claim to the golden rule in its variations. Ask a Christian and they'll tell you that Jesus said it first. He did say it, according to the book, and it is his simplest and most famous teaching, but he wasn't the first to say it. It was around for thousands of years before Jesus thought it would be a good idea to mention it in a different form. He said, "whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them". It sounds much the same, but it puts a heavier emphasis on the reciprocity aspect.

The golden rule is, of course, an attempt to simply convey the ethic of reciprocity. That is a concept found the world over. It predates all religions and is the basis for what we call the Social Contract - an implicit agreement among the members of a group to cooperate for mutual benefit. We easily see the social contract at work in primate communities, and recognize it in most other animal collectives as well. The idea is that by treating others well, you will benefit, maybe eventually, maybe in some small way, but there's a payoff for you doing it.

"Be excellent to each other". Five simple words, forming a simple phrase, expressing a simple directive, uttered by two simpletons in a fairly simple movie. It is, of course, from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, which I watched because it had George Carlin in it. It's a fun and entertaining buddy movie about a pair of slackers trying to complete a history paper for school that coaxes your brain into unguarded softness before dropping this philosophical anvil on it.

The important scene is of the movie's two title characters, Bill Preston and Ted Logan who end up in a future not-so-subtly influenced by the two. Bill and Ted find themselves in front of a trio of leaders, where they improvise some "words of wisdom". The first thing Bill comes up with is "Be excellent to each other". This sudden and sobering moment of profundity is immediately salved by Ted perking up and offering "Party on, dudes!" for his wise words. Ted's words are deeper than you might think. It's a reminder not to dwell on it, not to overthink it.

The first time I watched the movie, the next few minutes were lost as my mind worked at the weight that had just been unceremoniously dropped on it, and for myself, it was the moment that I completed the long process of shedding my religion (I tried to be Presbyterian). But that's another topic for another post, maybe.

"Be excellent to each other" gets rid of all that philosophical noise and gets back to the idea behind the golden rule, which is simply to treat each other well. There is no expectation of reciprocation, and there is no regard to personal benefit, it's just a simple directive to play nice with your fellow human beings with no other baggage attached to it. If there was a church of Billandtedism, it would consist of only one tenet, with the encouragement to not overthink it.

And that is why I like it so, and I have adopted it as a personal maxim. I don't always manage to do it, and I need to work on that.

As I look at what's happening around the world, it's a message many people could take to heart.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Rape of Mrs Takehiko 'In a Grove' by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892 -1927) is a Japanese writer often referred to as the Father of Japanese Short Stories.

His work is bold, crosses boundaries and invites the reader to look beyond his words and deeper into their own reactions to his literature.

In a Grove is an early modernist short story published in 1921.

It describes the murder of Kanazawa no Takehiko, a samurai warrior whose corpse has been found in a forest near Kyoto.

Akutagawa has approached the tale from a completely different angle by describing it through the voices of seven witnesses, with a strong emphasis on the three main characters.

If you have ever seen the film Vantage Point (2008 starring Dennis Quaid)) you will probably understand the type of all round cinematic view he was or is trying to give the reader. The concept also hits upon the validity and accuracy of eye-witness observations.

What I see may not be what you see, my perceptions are different to your perceptions and most importantly we all see, hear, experience and react to each moment through our own personal frame of reference.

Aside from the almost secondary sub-plot this short but extremely prolific piece takes a stand within the main plot. Not the killing of Takehiko, but the rape of his wife.

Rape and the reaction of the victim, the rapist and the husband of the victim. I have to say for a story written over 90 years ago it is a damn sight more in-your-face than most articles about the subject nowadays. It is reality, it is uncomfortable and it says a lot about the mind-set of people confronted with this type of situation.

Some of you may remember the 1964 film The Outrage, (starring Edward G. Robinson, Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom and William Shatner). The Outrage (remade as a Western) is a remake of the Japanese film Rashōmon (1950), which in turn is based on the plot and characters of In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

Get all that? There was an old lady who swallowed a fly kind of scenario.

Let's get back to the story and the list of witnesses. We have the woodcutter, the travelling priest, the policeman, the old woman,  the perpetrator -Tajomaru, the wife and the victim. Yes, apparently dead victims make really concise statements via medium to the police.

The Confession of Tajomaru, the Repentance of the Wife and  ghostly statement by Takehiko the Murdered Man take precedence above the statements of the other witnesses. The reader is put in the position of choice. Who do you believe or rather who would you believe in those circumstances?

The beginning of a tale with many endings and possible conclusions, it just depends on who you choose to believe.We all see things through our own individual frame of reference based on our life experiences, socio-economic status, environment, childhood and internal/external influences.

Regardless of that fact some things are just crystal clear or aren't they? Perhaps the waters are muddied or moving too quickly to be certain?

I wish I could say this poignant piece of literature represented a forgotten era or that attitudes have changed since the 1920's. The reality is they haven't and women are still dealing with the repercussions of this type of backward thinking.

In many countries the rape of a woman becomes a condemnation for that woman or girl, a death sentence. She is deemed dishonourable, and if married at the time of the rape she becomes an adulteress. Adultery also equals death sentence in some countries.

Medieval practices such as stoning or flaying are used to debase, torture and punish the victim even further. Young girls are gang raped and hung on trees by the neck. Rape is about power, ownership, taking a piece of a person, regardless of whether they are woman, man or child, a part they can never get back.

In this short story the focus is on the way husbands or partners react to their wife, girlfriend or companion being raped. It is about that quintessential flicker in the pit of their stomach, their gut base response and the first automatic reaction they have when they realise their woman has been raped.

Yes, you read that correctly. Their woman. That is exactly how women are perceived by the man or men in your close-knit relationships. The men in your pack would be a better description.

Another man has staked a claim on you, placed a flag on your body, imprinted and marked you as property. And that is the crux of the problem my friends. Women being perceived as property you can own, debase, lay a claim on and rid yourself of when you no longer require or want her.

Before tensions get a wee bit high, let me just assure this is not any kind of covert feminist propaganda. This is the reality of the world we live in. A world in which we must sign petitions and pressure governments not to kill pregnant women, who have been sentenced to death for being raped, ergo committing adultery, despite the fact the rapist usually goes unpunished. Whether the woman or girl is pregnant is irrelevant by the way, I was merely using the example of a very current event.

Base instinct. Neanderthal fist-pumping, dragging women by their hair into the cave, much like they would their kill of the day.

Just to clarify, I am not calling all men rapists, that would be a generalisation or worse playing to a stereotype, which one should never do or assume for that matter. I am merely pointing out that initial base response by a man to a power play by another man.

Do they hide that response? Well of course the majority of men do. The majority will acknowledge the response, feel shame at it, bury it very deep inside and then support their women, as they should be supported. Many of them will not be able to understand the initial response or bury it, which can lead to a deep crevice between a couple. Blame, guilt, fear and anger, all in one boat and no oars with which to paddle.

Note: this is all without considering the emotional and physical state of the victim, that is another ballgame altogether. Then we have the group of men, who embrace the initial response, because they have never been taught to control it.

I digress let's see what the three alleged killers have to say for themselves.

Tajomaru (the rapist) confesses to killing Takehiko. His decision to rape the Wife is what seals the fate of the husband. Her beauty is such that it forces him to want to stake his claim on her, ergo her fault for being so damn pretty.
At that moment I made up my mind to capture her even if I had to kill her man.The most spirited woman is defenseless without a weapon. At least I could satisfy my desire for her without taking her husband's life
Why? To me killing isn't a matter of such great consequence as you might think. When a woman is captured, her man has to be killed anyway.
He changes his mind about killing the husband, decides to rape her and leave the man alive. According to his statement the Wife begs him to kill her husband and save her honour by marrying her instead. Unfortunately the abominable practice of having a victim marry her rapist is also common in some countries in our very modern world.
She gasped out that she wanted to be the wife of whichever survived.Then a furious desire to kill him seized me.
Tajomaru depicts the killing of the husband as a fair fight between men. In doing so he becomes the victor of an altercation instead of just a murderer.
But I didn't like to resort to unfair means to kill him. I untied him and told him to cross swords with me.
Takehiko gives his version through a medium. What is his first reaction to the threat against his wife? Not fear, dismay or anger.
I was agonized by jealousy
After what Takehiko perceives or rather relays as the consensual act of sex,which his wife desired and requested, there is a moment between himself and the robber.They have a moment of male bonding, an understanding from man to man. Tajomaru speaks softly to Takehiko.
"What will you do with her? Kill her or save her? You have only to nod. Kill her?" For these words alone I would like to pardon his crime.
Tajomaru does two things in these sentences. He makes it clear to his rival that he has indeed taken claim of and soiled his property, and he acknowledges that in doing so he has dishonoured her, ergo making her redundant to her husband.

In turn Takehiko forgives him for the deed, because their male bond and patriarchal rules takes precedence over everything else. They are the same.

In that moment in time their roles in the scenario and the object of their disdain are one and the same.

The wife has run away during this interaction and Tajomaru cuts the ropes that bind Takehiko. The husband hears himself crying softly, perhaps a inkling of remorse? He then decides to make sure his own honourable status remains intact.
I raised my exhausted body from the foot of the cedar. In front of me there was shining the small sword which my wife had dropped. I took it up and stabbed it into my breast
Takehiko's wife makes her statement. Note: Throughout the story she is only ever referred to as his wife. She has no name, no identity other than being his wife. Once again this is indicative of the time prior to and when it was written, and unfortunately in many parts of our world it still is. The woman as a sub-human, the lesser of the species.

The Wife tries to run towards her husband, who is bound to a cedar root, and is thrown to the ground by Tajomaru. He then rapes her in front of her husband. She looks into her husbands eyes and is shocked by what she sees.
That instantaneous look of my husband, who couldn't speak a word, told me all his heart. The flash in his eyes was neither anger nor sorrow … only a cold light, a look of loathing. Beneath the cold contempt in his eyes, there was hatred. Shame, grief, and anger.
The Wife decides she cannot live with her shame and neither must her husband. Personally I would prefer to believe she decided he deserved to die for his reaction to her rape.
Despising me, his look said only, "Kill me." Neither conscious nor unconscious, I stabbed the small sword through the lilac-colored kimono into his breast.
As if the physical and psychological stripping and burden of rape wasn't enough to deal with, the victim then has to deal with their own emotions and the reactions of the people around them.

Feelings of doubt, shame and blame creep onto their shoulders and sit at the back of their neck like constant draft of cold air. This is exactly how the wife of Takehiko reacts.
And … and what has become of me? Only that, since I have no more strength to tell you. Anyway, I hadn't the strength to die. I stabbed my own throat with the small sword, I threw myself into a pond at the foot of the mountain, and I tried to kill myself in many ways. Unable to end my life, I am still living in dishonor.
She removes her now dishonourable self from society by entering a cloister.
Worthless as I am, I must have been forsaken
In her own eyes or rather those of society, she is no longer honourable enough to be part of said society. She must hide her self, her face, her body and her shame.

So there you have it. A rape, a death and three different versions of the event in question. Read it and acknowledge your initial gut reaction.

Are some of the points I made harsh? Yes, but so is the reality of the global epidemic of power, pain and death via rape in the 21st century.

No person, neither man nor woman should commit rape upon a man or woman. No child should have to endure sexual interaction of any kind by man or woman or child.

No does not mean Yes.
Maybe does not mean Yes.
Silence does not mean Yes
Only Yes means Yes.

Free downloads of the above mentioned story and more by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
Download to read In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa from Feedbooks here.
Download to read Roshomon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa from Feedbooks here.
Download to read Roshomon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa  from the Internet Archive here.
Download to listen to a variety of stories, including Roshomon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa at Librivox here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

An Untimely Predicament and How to Write About It

Edgar Allan Poe is a famous and popular American author, poet, editor, and literary critic. But the poor man had a lousy life. Edgar was born on January 19, 1809, the second child of two actors. But by 1810, his father had abandoned the family and then died and by 1811, his mother had died from consumption.

Edgar was taken in by, but never adopted by, a merchant family in Richmond, Virginia. But while he got along well with his adopted mother, Frances Allen, there was a lot of tension between Edgar and his adopted father, John Allen. Especially about the gambling debts Edgar accumulated while at the University of Virginia. John Allen cut Edgar off and refused to pay his debts or support him so Edgar was forced to leave school. Edgar Allan Poe lied about his age (he claimed he was 22 when he was only 18) and joined the United States Army.

After two years of service, Edgar sought early release but his commanding officer would only agree on the condition that Edgar reconciled with his adopted family. But John Allen refused to reply to any of Edgar’s letters until his wife Frances Allen died on February 28, 1829. Her deathbed wish was that Edgar and John would reconcile and John honored her wish. Edgar left the Army and entered West Point Military Academy. His reconciliation with John Allen did not last and John finally disowned Edgar in 1830. Edgar also court-martialed out of West point in 1830.

Edgar Allan Poe moved to Baltimore, Maryland to live with his aunt Maria Clemm and Maria’s eight year old daughter Virginia. Edgar’s brother Henry also lived with Maria Clemm. Henry had been in ill health due in part with problems related to alcoholism. Henry died not long after Edgar moved in.

In August 1885, Edgar moved back to Richmond, Virginia to accept a job as assistant editor at a periodical but he was fired for drunkenness after only a few weeks. In September, Edgar returned to Baltimore and secretly married his young cousin Virginia. He was 22 and she claimed to be 21 but was actually only 13 years old. They went to Richmond and Edgar was able to get his job as assistant editor back.

Throughout this time, Edgar Allan Poe had been steadily writing. He had published poems and also self-published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827). His job as assistant editor at Southern Literary Messenger was the “start of his career as a respected critic and essayist.” His caustic reviews would eventually earn him the nickname "Tomahawk Man". Edgar continued to write. In 1838, his only completed novel was published, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In 1841, “what some consider to be the first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published.” Edgar also moved to several other journals and even announced his intentions to start his own journal (although he never did).

But by 1842, his wife Virginia was showing the first signs of illness and Edgar was stressed and drinking more and more.

Edgar Allan Poe became editor of, and then sole owner of, the Broadway Journal. In 1845, his poem The Raven was published and was a “popular sensation” although Edgar was paid only nine dollars for it. In 1846, his Broadway Journal failed and Edgar and Virginia moved to a small cottage in the Bronx, NY. Virginia died there of consumption (tuberculosis) on January 30, 1847.

Edgar turned more and more to alcohol and his behavior became increasingly erratic after his wife’s death. He attempted to court the poet Sarah Helen Whitman but she broke off the engagement due to his drinking and behavior. Edgar then returned to Richmond, Virginia and, in 1848, he became engaged to a childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster.

Then, on October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. There are conflicting reports as to whether he was delirious or unconscious. He was taken to Washington Medical College where he died on Sunday October 7, 1849. The exact cause of his death remains a mystery because Edgar was “never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own.”

Even after his death, Edgar’s misfortunes did not end. On the day of his death, a nasty obituary appeared in the New York Tribune written by “Ludwig”. The obituary began:
  • “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”
“Ludwig” was soon as identified as Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor and critic with a longtime grudge against Edgar going back to 1842. Griswold somehow managed to become Edgar’s literary executor and set about trying to destroy Edgar’s reputation after death. Griswold even wrote a biographical article claiming Edgar was a depraved, drunk, drug-addicted madman. Many of his claims were denounced and exposed as distorted half-truths or outright lies and forgeries but the damage was done. The reading public thrilled to the idea of Edgar Allan Poe as an “evil” man who wrote strange and unusual tales.

“A Predicament” and its companion piece “How to Write A Blackwood Article” both written by Edgar Allan Poe were originally published in the November 1838 edition of the American Museum. The short story, “A Predicament” was originally titled “The Scythe of Time”. The mock essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article” was originally titled “The Psyche Zenobia.” The titles were changed when Edgar published the two in his collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840.

“A Predicament” is such a strange story that I really think a reader should read both pieces to try to understand what Edgar Allan Poe is saying. “A Predicament” is a humorous horror story about a young woman named Signora Psyche Zenobia and the strange situation she gets herself into. Signora Psyche Zenobia (don’t call her Suky Snobbs!) and her servant and her tiny little five inch tall poodle are out for a walk one afternoon. Psyche Zenobia is full of oblivious contradictions:
  • “It was a quiet and still afternoon when I strolled forth in the goodly city of Edina. The confusion and bustle in the streets were terrible.”
  • Her servant Pompey “was three feet in height (I like to be particular) and about seventy, or perhaps, eighty, years of age.”

They make a strange group. Psyche Zenobia is a “commanding” figure dressed in a “crimson satin dress, with a sky-blue Arabian mantelet. And the dress had trimmings of green agraffas, and seven graceful flounces of the orange-colored auricula.” Pompey, the servant, is three feet tall, bow-legged, and fat and wearing an overcoat so large and long that he has to hold “it up out of the dirt with both hands”. And Diana the dog is only five inches tall but has a large head and a tail that was “cut off exceedingly close, gave an air of injured innocence to the interesting animal which rendered her a favorite with all”.

Psyche Zenobia suddenly spots a tall Gothic church and simply must go inside. Once there, she simply must climb the clock tower. Upon spying a square opening at the top of the clock tower, she absolutely must stick her head through it. And that is how she ends up in her untimely “predicament”.

I felt the story had a rather dreamlike, not-quite-in-the-real-world feel to it. Psyche Zenobia wanders about pondering life. She aimlessly climbs the clock tower staircase. She finds the staircase to be endless but does not really feel any hurry to actually get on with life. Even when she finds herself in a strange “predicament” she does not realize her danger or take any effort to save herself until it is too late. Even facing  the inevitable, she feels no rush of fear, no panicky rush of time. In fact, even as the pressure from the clock hand is causing her eyes to pop out, our heroine is just sort of wondering how she will ever manage without her eyes. Then - pop! - there goes an eye. And wouldn’t you know it, it has an “insolent air of independence and contempt with which it regarded” poor Psyche Zenobia.

Here are a few lines from “A Predicament” that I enjoyed:
  • “On a sudden, there presented itself to view a church - a Gothic cathedral - vast, venerable, and with a tall steeple, which towered into the sky.”
  • “If! Distressing monosyllable! what world of mystery, and meaning, and doubt, and uncertainty is there in thy two letters!”
  • While climbing the endless clock tower stairs “I could not help surmising that the upper end of the continuous spiral ladder had been accidentally, or perhaps designedly, removed.”
  • Psyche Zenobia realizes her danger, “I perceived, to my extreme horror. That the huge, glittering scimitar-like minute-hand of the clock had, in the course of its hourly revolution, descended upon my neck. There was, I knew, not a second to be lost. I pulled back at once - but it was too late.”
  • After “twenty-five minutes past five” when the “predicament” is over, Psyche Zenobia continues. “There was nothing new to prevent my getting down from my elevation, and I did so. What it was that Pompey saw so very peculiar in my appearance I have never yet been able to find out.”

I read “How to Write a Blackwood Article” after reading “A Predicament”. Some readers may get more out of the two pieces if they read “Blackwood Article” first because it appears to take place just before “A Predicament”. But since I read “A Predicament” first I had a whole different view of the story that changed significantly after reading “How to Write a Blackwood Article”. This “mock essay” is a “satirical "how-to" essay on formulaic horror stories typically printed in the Scottish Blackwood's Magazine and others”.

I actually felt I “knew” the Signora Psyche Zenobia better after reading “How to Write a Blackwood Article”. I also had several “ah-ha!” moments when I suddenly realized what Psyche Zenobia really meant or why she seemingly randomly said or did some things - not so random after all. So some readers may prefer my reading order (“A Predicament” first then “How to Write a Blackwood Article”) in order to enjoy some of those surprise revelations. Other readers may prefer a more "timely" order.

Here are a few lines from “How to Write a Blackwood Article” that I enjoyed”
  • Psyche Zenobia and her friends wanted “initials” after their names so Dr. Moneypenny made the title for them - “at any rate we always add to our names the initials P.R.E.T.T.Y.B.L.U.E.B.A.T.C.H. - that is to say, Philadelphia, Regular, Exchange. Tea, Total, Young, Belles, Lettres, Universal, Experimental, Bibliographical, Association, To, Civilize, Humanity.”
  • “Dr. Moneypenny will have it that our initials give our true character - but for my life I can’t see what he means.”
  • Mr. Blackwood explains how to write “intensities” - “The matter stands thus: In the first place your writer of intensities must have very black ink, and a very big pen, with a very blunt nib. And, mark me, Miss Psyche Zenobia!" he continued, after a pause, with the most expressive energy and solemnity of manner, "mark me!—that pen—must—never be mended! Herein, madam, lies the secret, the soul, of intensity.”
  • Mr. Blackwood gives an example - “Let me see. There was 'The Dead Alive,' a capital thing!—the record of a gentleman's sensations when entombed before the breath was out of his body—full of tastes, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and erudition. You would have sworn that the writer had been born and brought up in a coffin.”
  • More advice from Mr. Blackwood - “That was a nice bit of flummery, and went down the throats of the people delightfully. They would have it that Coleridge wrote the paper—but not so. It was composed by my pet baboon, Juniper, over a rummer of Hollands and water, 'hot, without sugar.”
  • Still more advice - “Sensations are the great things after all. Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations—they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet.”
  • And - “The first thing requisite is to get yourself into such a scrape as no one ever got into before.”
  • Then how to actually write - “The words must be all in a whirl, like a humming-top, and make a noise very similar, which answers remarkably well instead of meaning. This is the best of all possible styles where the writer is in too great a hurry to think.”
  • Psyche Zenobia sets out to put Mr. Blackwood’s advice to good use - “It was my primary object upon quitting Mr. Blackwood, to get into some immediate difficulty, pursuant to his advice, and with this view I spent the greater part of the day in wandering about Edinburgh, seeking for desperate adventures—adventures adequate to the intensity of my feelings, and adapted to the vast character of the article I intended to write.”

Overall, “A Predicament” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article” by Edgar Allan Poe are both very short; it took less than an hour to finish both. The writing flows quickly and the tales are both full of humor (although it sometimes is not completely clear exactly who the humor is aimed at). I really feel readers need to read both the short story and the mock essay to get the full impact. There are some images of horror in “A Predicament” but they have a strange quality and once readers know the full story they become even more unusual. Some young readers may be confused at times and may find some scenes disturbing. But I felt the elements of horror were pretty mild compared to many current images.

Of course the very best thing about both “A Predicament” and “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, both by Edgar Allan Poe, is that they are FREE in the Public Domain.

Unfortunately LibriVox does not have audio books of either tale.
The Internet Archive does not have either tale available in any version.

Fortunately, Feedbooks has both tales available:
Please click this link to download and read “A Predicament” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Please click this link to download and read “How to Write a Blackwood Article” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Project Gutenberg has both tales available in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe - Volume 4 by Edgar Allan Poe. Please click here to download and read.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Imagine waking up one day to discover that you've been transformed into a human-sized beetle-like creature. Not only that, but you've slept in, and you're hours late for work. That's what happens to Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, in Kafka's novella "The Metamorphosis".

We are just to accept that this transformation happened. Was it mutation? Was it magic? Was it a curse? Was it catastrophic karmic punishment? We never know why, nor does Kafka expend any effort in offering even a hint of a reason.

The very first line dives straight in and delivers the shock factor of the novella, "One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous vermin."

Gregor shares an apartment with his parents, who we only know as Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, and his sister Grete. The first part of the novella focuses on his panicked discovery of and hurried attempt to adjust to his new form while trying to prevent his family from discovering him this way. Much of the mobility that Gregor took for granted in his human form has to be relearned in this new insectoid body. Gregor also cannot communicate verbally, as anything he tries to say comes out as unintelligible noise.

His employer, concerned about his unexplained absence, sends the office manager over to check on him. Everyone's curiosity and concern are piqued at Gregor's refusal to open his bedroom door. The family's discovery of Gregor's new form can no longer be avoided, and after fumbling at the door handle with his weak new appendages, he manages to open the door with his mouth. The family reacts as you might expect a family to react when they discover their son is a human-sized beetle-thing. The office manager runs for his life, and Gregor tries to pursue him, but his father beats him back to retreat into his bedroom. Exhausted from the morning's events, from learning to operate this new body and badly injured from his father's physical response, Gregor falls asleep and awakens later that evening to begin the second part of the novella.

In part two, Gregor discovers that his former diet doesn't work well for his new form. His sister Grete brings him some milk and bread, a favourite of his, for which he immediately discovers he no longer has an appetite. He discovers that his bedroom makes him inexplicably uncomfortable, and he feels much more at home hiding by squeezing his bulky body under the couch in his room as best he could. His night was a fitful one, asleep and then not, troubled by his new reality and coming to grips with rearranging his life and wondering how the family will do without his income. I mean, who would buy anything from a travelling salesman who is a giant beetle?

In the morning Grete removes the virtually untouched milk and brings him some scraps of food that, if they didn't come from the garbage pail, they were certainly destined for it. Here he discovers another new thing about himself. The fresher the food is, the less he prefers it. The more rotten the food is, the better.

For several days this continued. Gregor doing little more than existing and eavesdropping on conversations (usually about him), confined to his room as his sister brought him rotten food and cleaned his room a little. The family was also going over their options, exploring the different scenarios of what would happen with Gregor this way. Gregor found himself longing to be a travelling salesman again. He could support the whole family, and he felt useful. Now, he was a prisoner in his own room and could not bear his family's expenses.

The family was not in immediate need. Some of Gregor's earnings had been salted away for a rainy day, and his father had a small amount of investment from a failed business, but all of that would be exhausted in short order.

Days turned to weeks, then months. Bored, Gregor's next discovery was that he could climb walls and his new favourite thing to do was to hang from the ceiling. After a while, when Mr. Samsa is out, Mrs. Samsa works up the courage to enter the room and help Grete remove a few furnishings from it to accommodate Gregor's wall-climbing and make the room more habitable for a beetle-creature. The realization dawns on everyone - Gregor included - that this move was a divestment, if even a small one, of Gregor's human past.

Gregor's father returns home during this, wearing what looks to be a bank teller's uniform. Gregor deduces he must have taken a job. Mrs. Samsa is distressed from the experience of moving the furniture and Mr. Samsa decides to go after Gregor, first trying to stomp his foot down on him as if he were a regular cockroach, then pelting him with apples from a fruit basket. One of the apples did serious damage, and Gregor retreated to end the second section.

The third and concluding section of the novella continues over a month later. The damage suffered from the apple severely slows Gregor, the wound will not heal and his condition is worsening. Gregor rarely sleeps or eats now, and Grete's cleaning can no longer keep up with him and the room begins slowly looking disheveled. Mrs. Samsa again works up the courage to enter Gregor's room and do some cleaning but this does not go well.

The family decides to clean out one room in their apartment and take in lodgers. Almost inevitably, the lodgers discover Gregor's existence and this forces the novella's conclusion, which I will leave for you to discover for yourself.

The Metamorphosis was originally written in German and published in 1912. , The work I listened to was translated by Ian Johnston and read by David Barnes. There are two other versions available from LibriVox, all listed below.

This novella has inspired many other creations. Seven movie versions of the story were created, and even the Simpsons tipped their hat to Kafka in the Treehouse of Horror story "Metamorphosimpsons". Other authors have retold the story from the perspective of different characters in the story and others not included. For example, Jacob Appel's novel "Scouting for the Reaper" tells the story of a rabbi challenged with providing a proper Jewish burial for Gregor. (oops, "Spoiler Alert!"). An illustrated version of Metamorphosis was created by famous cartoonist Robert Crumb.

As a foreword for Susan Berenofsky's new translation of The Metamorphosis, filmmaker David Cronenberg recently compared The Metamorphosis and his 1986 treatment of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum.

The 1995 Oscar-winning short film "Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life" features the latest "Doctor Who" Doctor, Peter Capaldi, as the author Kafka struggling desperately to work through a rather extreme case of writer's block to complete the famous opening line of The Metamorphosis. "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning he found himself transformed into a gigantic... banana?"

The Metamorphosis is about 50 pages long and you'll want to set aside about three hours for the audio version.

You can: