Saturday, August 24, 2019

Bela Lugosi first gained talkie film notice in Tod Browning's The Thirteenth Chair

By Doug Gibson

Tod Browning's early talkie, "The Thirteenth Chair," 1929, suffers from the common maladies of early sound cinema. It's static, talky, and seems a recreation of a stage play, which it really is, as virtually every moment is "drawing room mystery" with scene after scene of familiar rooms. Also, the camera work is stage-like, with stationary long and medium shots.

Nevertheless, it's a rewarding film experience for those who can endure the first half hour. The second half features a compelling murder mystery and fine performances by two cast members: Margaret Wycherly, as a medium and mother of the chief murder suspect, Helen O'Neill, played by an absolutely gorgeous Leila Hyams; and, a pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi, who lifts the quality of the film several notches with a strong performance as Inspector Delzante, tasked with finding the murderer of a despised "bounder," Spencer Lee. Lugosi takes command of the talky film and shows an energy and grasp of the English language that puts to shame rumors that early in stage and Hollywood he spoke his lines phonetically. (See him below in a shot from the film).

The plot involves Sir Edmund Wales contracting a medium (Wycherly) to find the murderer. Hyams, a secretary, is engaged to be married to Richard Crosby (Conrad Nagel), son of the wealthy Crosbys. During the seance, Wales himself is murdered in the dark. As Lugosi's Inspector Delzante investigates, evidence seems to point to Helen (Hyams). That throws Helen's mother/medium Wycherly into a panic and she feverishly investigates to clear her daughter. Wycherle, whose husband, Bayard Veiller, was the author of the 1916 play the film is based on, shares compelling second-half scenes with Lugosi, even with the static filming, as she pleads for her daughter to the skeptical detective. (See a still of both below.)

The 72-minute film, released Oct. 19, 1929, has a strong twist ending that is both macabre and compelling.

Notes: Wycherle was a member of the original 1916 stage cast. The movie was filmed at least five times, in 1919, 1929, 1937and for TV in 1953 and 1954. The 1937 version is the one that is easily available via YouTube. Browning's version was also filmed silent, but that production is considered lost. The "Thirteenth Chair" is set in Calcutta with a typical English colonialist cast of characters. The play is free via Amazon Kindle. Lugosi and Wycherle both died within scant months of each other in 1956.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Celeste and the White Dragon, an interview with author D. Michael Martindale

I recently had the pleasure of reading the fantasy novel, "Celeste & the White Dragon," (Worldsmith Stories, 2019) from author D. Michael Martindale. He's a talented who is the author of the novel, Brother Brigham, which I reviewed on a blog (here). "Celeste & the White Dragon" is the novel in a series that will encompass several volumes. It involves a search for a young princess, sought after for the powerful, magical energies she possesses. She's being protected as well as she can by those who love her, and want to protect her from others willing to kill her to appropriate her powers.

Village witches, powerful sorceresses, warriors with magical skills from other lands, wizards, kings, soldiers, magical, divine pilgrims, humans who fated to turn into beasts ..., all are determined to either preserve or possess the ancient magic that lives within the princess. Various motives, including love and power, motivate them.

I found Martindale's writing exciting and compelling. He created a world of nations, customs and peoples that blends magic with the gods of the lands. It's an exciting read, carefully constructed with sequences and twists to sustain a series. I'm looking forward to the second book of the series.

--- Doug Gibson


After reading "Celeste and the White Dragon," I asked Martindale if I could interview him about the series. He was kind enough to consent. You can also purchase "Celeste and the White Dragon" from Amazon, paperback, here, and via Kindle, here. In the interview we discuss characters and events that readers will discover in the novel. 


Plan9CrunchI'm fascinated by the evil of Gwendolyn, her cruelty mixed with her regret and silent prayers at time for those she hunts. Do you find analogies, historical or literary, for her character. Did any inspire your creation of her?

Martindale: In the first version from over a decade ago, she was closer to a stock villain. I gave her an understandable motive, but still made her basically evil.

  • Since then I've literarily matured and find such villains boring. The high school bully who simply exists without motive, the sinister  government shadow organization that always seems to end up being behind  terrible things that happen, like in the Dustin Hoffman film "Outbreak"  (usually represented by Morgan Freeman who gets a twinge of conscience  in the end), or even most recently the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation of Ursula K.  LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea" called "Earthsea" that I'm in the middle  of watching right now, where the bad guy is a military ruler that just wants to conquer the islands of Earthsea for no particular reason. "Karate Kid" is another example of stock villains who are there just to  drive the plot.

You might call these anti-inspirations that informed me of what I did NOT want Gwendolyn to be. I find stories where everyone is trying to do  good as they perceive it, but coming into conflict with each other, to be vastly more fascinating than the typical stock heroes and villains. (My apologies to Tolkien.)

The first time I remember seeing an antagonist like that was in the coming-of-age film "Lucas" where the villain was a school bully, except that he was a nuanced bully who in the end came to admire and applaud  Lucas for his courage.

The greatest inspiration for Gwendolyn was recognizing that I had created such a stock villain and I wanted her to be more complex than that. In her eyes, she was the hero of her story. And that's just plain good characterization.

Plan9CrunchThe energy supply of Kasimir's magic, jewels embedded in the body,was very interesting. Did you find similar instances in research, or is this a plot development you have blazed?

MartindaleIt wouldn't surprise me if someone else had come up with the idea that I'm not aware of, since it seems there's nothing new under the sun, but I came up with that one all on my own. Having gems or blood involved somehow with magic is nothing new. But the mechanism of attaching them to one's skin so blood will leak out when removed so the blood can activate the magic is entirely my concoction. I wanted something different about my wizards so they'd stand out and not seem cliche, and that's what I dreamed up. Basing them on Arabian wizards more than European ones was also a part of that.

Plan9Crunch: Are there parallels between the massive, long searches for Celeste, which opposing sides search for her, in other literature, or history?

MartindaleOther than "Sleeping Beauty"? Compared to George R.R. Martin's series that he based significantly on British history, I didn't do a lot of historical analogies in "Celeste." I did borrow heavily from European culture and geography simply to make a rich and complex world easier to fashion instead of creating one whole cloth.

The story, not so much. It's a story I came up with on my own, no doubt  influenced consciously and subconsciously by all sorts of influences in my life. I mixed together multiple legends and myths and created my own unique mythology from them that I hope appears seamlessly integrated, and will continue to do so in future volumes.

Plan9Crunch: What fantasy authors or filmmakers inspired you? I know you are more impressed by the film versions of "Game of Thrones" than the books.

MartindaleTolkien, obviously. It's nearly impossible to write fantasy without being derivative of Tolkien to some extent, since he practically invented the modern fantasy genre.

Another was Jack Vance from his book "The Dying Earth," a fantasy with a magic system that I loosely borrowed some elements from for mine. "Dungeons and Dragons" was an important influence, with its explanation that the power of spells comes from the breath the spellcaster speaks them with and the words on magical scrolls. It's where I came up with the idea of breath spells vs. spells cast with materials that are burned and crushed.

Which means I guess I can count Albert Einstein as an influence too, since the power to cast magic comes from converting matter to energy, except the equation E=MC2 probably isn't quantitatively accurate in Celeste's universe, because that produces a crapload more energy than the witches of Cueldea produce with their magic.

"Game of Thrones" actually had very little impact on the story, since I dreamed up the story before I ever heard of it or George R.R. Martin. It's impact was entirely to force me to overhaul the first version of "Celeste" and come up with something better that wouldn't be laughed at when compared to "Game of Thrones."

Plan9CrunchThe relationship between Edward and Celeste is --- without context -- conventionally appalling. Do you think readers can deal with it as an essential plot point without being squeamish? (Don't give away anything, just try to speak generally, if possible).

Martindale: It's the same issue I dealt with when writing my first published novel  "Brother Brigham." That was directed at a Mormon audience, so it took less to cause squeamishness. I wrote nothing in that book that I thought was questionable. It's not like I celebrated the squeamish parts or endorsed them. They just happened, as such things do in the human experience.

Even more so for "Celeste." I always know when I include edgier content that it will scandalize certain readers. But I NEVER include gratuitous content. It's always a part of the story, and I refuse to shy away from any aspect of the human condition because it might cause squeamishness. That would be dishonest storytelling. Coming from a Mormon background, I'm keenly aware of the pressure to write "appropriately," and I categorically reject that mentality as dishonest. Scandalous and terrible things happen in real life, and I won't ignore them in my stories.

When someone asks, "Why did you have to include that in your story?" my response is, "Why should I leave it out?"

For those who become squeamish, I can only say, I'm sorry you felt that way, but I'm not sorry I wrote it. I've already had such reactions from a reader or two of "Celeste" over certain content, but I can't change it for their sake because that would diminish the story and be unfair to the characters. It's what they would do in that situation, and I'm not going to cheat on that character just to appease a reader who's uncomfortable.

I'm hardly the only edgy writer out there. Much worse things have been written. After all, "Lolita" is considered a classic.

But what I hope my readers will recognize is that, while a particular scene may be uncomfortable to them, in the context, the characters are doing nothing wrong according to their culture and their knowledge at the time. The issue is not whether the unsettling things happened, but what the attitude of the story is to them, and my book certainly never condones questionable behavior. There are always repercussions.

Some readers won't be able to deal with it, but many will. After watching HBO's "Game of Thrones," I've been encouraged by the fact that all sorts of terrible and squeamish things happen there, yet it's a massively popular series. With my book, they don't even have to see the television images of the scenes. It's just words in a book.

Plan9CrunchAs you note in the afterward, this was a long writing process. What advice do you give to writers of the genre who know their first drafts are not good enough?

Martindale: I could write a book on this subject. The very first thing is to recognize that writing is an art and a craft, as much as painting or dance or acting. It's a rare individual who can just pick up a pen and write something great, like Mozart apparently could do. Learn your craft! Pay your dues! That means read, read, read in the genre you want to write, and write, write, write, knowing your first million words will be crap.

The second thing is to recognize that your first draft will ALWAYS not be good enough.

Your first draft is purely to vomit the work onto the page. You must gag the editor in your head, because that first draft is when your creativity runs free. Once completed, you never show it to anyone. You reread it first, so you can fix the huge gaffes and incomprehensible sentences and ridiculous spelling and grammatical errors that you're horrified to find crept into it and are thankful no one else ever saw. The first draft anyone in the world sees is really my second draft.

Then comes the work. You send it off to a couple of first readers, people sophisticated enough to not just be impressed that you managed to write anything, who will give you honest and constructive feedback. Then you rewrite.

Then repeat that cycle. And repeat. And repeat. Repeat until you're so sick of reading it yourself, you can't bear the thought of reading it again. Then you repeat the cycle again. But there's a blessing in disguise in that. If after you're sick of it, you still find yourself drawn into the story and affected by it, you know you've got something good going on.

One day you stop repeating and start the publication process. When that step arrives is purely a judgment call. Whenever I reread, I still find typos and bad sentences and plot holes. You just have to decide one day that each new cycle is giving diminishing returns and it's time to let it go, warts and all.

But never expect your work to be great without several drafts. It's part of the job. And if someone thinks that's too much work, maybe they should consider doing something besides writing.

Plan9Crunch: I can't wait for the prequel. Will we learn more about the Blood King and the lands he has conquered? 

MartindaleI have six more books planned. Two trilogies, and a seventh book that ties them together.

The first trilogy is "Celeste," its prequel, and its sequel. I already have titles for them (subject to change): "Seven Sisters" and "Rogue Sorceress."

"Seven Sisters" tells the origin stories of the primary characters in  Cueldea. "Rogue Sorceress" tells the story of what happens up until the conflict with the Blood King will begin.

The other trilogy is about the Blood King and his sorceress wife, who they are and where they came from. That one will have a definite historical counterpart.

The final book will be the climax for the whole series.

Plan9Crunch Anything else? Please add. Thanks D. Michael. You are a great story-teller.

Martindale: Thanks. I've worked hard to try to become so.

In the overhaul that resulted in the current version, I created two significant characters that weren't there before. Both of them were spur-of-the-moment creations.

The first was Faisal, Kasimir's brother. When I added new chapters to tell the backstory of Kasimir, who in the first version never appeared until he was on his quest, in that moment--in the first sentence--I invented his brother, who then became his companion throughout the book.

The other character was Ilsa, who appeared briefly and namelessly in one scene in the first version, then disappeared completely. When I reached that scene in the overhaul, I decided new developments required that I 
reverse what happened to her, and that motivated me to make her a part of the story from that time forward.

Both additions added tremendously to the story. Faisal was Kasimir's sidekick that he could share his thoughts with, even have disagreements with, from time to time. Together they made it possible to put their culture on display to a greater degree than I had before.

Telling certain chapters from Ilsa's point of view completely energized those chapters, as exposition that was fairly mundane became more interesting through her inexperienced eyes, like watching a child discover the wonders of the world. Then to have her become a deciding factor in certain critical moments in the plot added so much.

Part of the serendipitous rewards of rewriting and being willing to consider alternatives one hadn't thought of before. Such moments can transform your story.

Thanks very much, D. Michael, for sharing your insights with Plan9Crunch.