Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 3 - The Dunwich Horror

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. Let's look at a classic short story from H.P. Lovecraft, "The Dunwich Horror."

Lovecraft was a master at crafting stories of cosmic fear, where man is dwarfed by forces which can scarcely be understood, much less controlled. But while that lack of agency makes for an unsettling milieu, it can also lead to some pretty passive protagonists. The characters in "The Call of Cthulhu" and "At the Mountains of Madness" don't really do all that much, aside from learning about unspeakable horrors.

"The Dunwich Horror" is a different kind of tale, one that is much closer to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG. There are heroes (the wizened Professor Armitage), there are villains (the unnatural Wilbur Whateley), and they actually come into conflict with one another on occasion. The story even has a cinematic climax and twist ending, which, while perhaps not as unique as Lovecraft's other work, are much more accessible to a mainstream audience.

As such, it's not surprising that "The Dunwich Horror" has been adapted multiple times, including a feature film starring Dean Stockwell. My personal favorite is this 1945 episode of "Suspense":

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Links: Fireside Mystery Theatre

The podcast is the perfect vehicle for audio drama, and Fireside Mystery Theatre is one of my favorites. The show is taped live every month at the Slipper Room, a burlesque club in Manhattan, and each episode features a slew of spooky stories done in the style of old-time radio drama:

During the summer, Fireside Mystery Theatre also posts dramatic readings of classic horror stories. If you liked my post about Ambrose Bierce's "Can Such Things Be?," you also might like this reading of "An Unfinished Race" and Charles Ashmore's Trail," stories which portend Bierce's own unexplained disappearance...just be sure to mind the shadows:

Sunday, October 08, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 2 - Can Such Things Be?

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. This entry focuses on "Can Such Things Be?", a classic collection of supernatural horror stories by Ambrose Bierce.

If you've ever read "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," you know it ends in the oldest horror cheat in the book. (Spoiler alert! - the protagonist's incredible escape from the noose turns out to be a hallucination, imagined in the moments before death). Bierce's twist seems hackneyed now, of course, but it was pretty bold in its time.

In comparison, the ghostly tales collected in Can Such Things Be? have held up nicely. Many of them interleave multiple points of view, gradually building in weirdness as the story progresses. "The Secret of Macarger's Gulch" is an early example; its narrator's terror at being haunted by mysterious beings in a dark house is bad enough, but the real horror comes "[s]ome years afterward," when an explanation of the secret is finally provided.

Dawning realization is also the theme of "The Moonlit Road," but this time, it's on the part of the reader. The three narrators in the story each have their own perspective on how a ghost of a strangled woman came to stalk a man on a moonlit road, but even the ghost does not know the whole truth. "The Moonlit Road" is a clear precursor to "In a Grove," on which Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" is based, but the end result in Ambrose Bierce's story is decidedly more bitter and cynical.

My favorite in the collection is probably "The Death of Halpin Frayser," a daring take on the traditional ghost story. The setup is pretty traditional (a drifter comes face to face with his dead mother in a dark wood), but Bierce spins it into a far more ambiguous tale. The unlikely climax, provided by two detectives investigating the drifter's death, takes place in broad daylight and yet is utterly disturbing.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 1 - Metzengerstein, Morella, and The Oval Portrait

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. Today, we'll start with a look at three lesser-known short stories from the granddaddy of them all, Edgar Allan Poe.

America was in its infancy during Edgar Allan Poe's career, so it's not surprising that his work often reincarnated the Old World into the New.  In "Metzengerstein," Poe's first published short story, the two great houses of Berlifitzing and Metzengerstein form the backdrop for a tale about a man and a most unusual horse. The story co-opts the trappings of eastern European noble identity - barons, castles, and counts - to make a larger point about the immortal soul and the things that can sicken it.

A later Poe story, "Morella," digs even deeper into antiquity. It starts off with a quote from Plato ("Itself, by itself, solely, one everlasting, and single") and then uses some more Greek to hit you over the head with the theme ("Παλιγγενεσια of the Pythagoreans"). The unnamed narrator in "Morella" becomes haunted by his daughter's uncanny resemblance to his dying wife. At the end of the story, he makes a startling discovery - startling only to him, that is, thanks to the foreshadowing provided for the reader.

Poe examined metempsychosis once again in "The Oval Portrait," which also contains one of his most atmospheric frame stories. In this one, the narrator confronts an eerie, seemingly alive painting in a gloomy chateau, and then learns the sad tale behind its creation. If you believe art can be stronger than death, and that love can be stronger than art, then you will appreciate the transfiguration presented here.

"Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term 'Art,' I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.'"

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Music: Good With God

South Florida is still cleaning up from Irmageddon, but everyone here is breathing a sigh of relief. If the storm turned northward a half day earlier, we would've been hit hard, though not nearly as bad as the folks in the Keys (please donate if you can).

It's not every day that you have your life impacted so much by something you have no control over. Today's musical selection, from the alt-country band Old 97's, is a tongue-in-cheek look at the helplessness one might feel when being faced with a higher power:

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Guns: S&W M&P22 Compact review (threaded barrel) - Suppressor Ready, Congress Isn't

Introduction - Waiting for [Duncan-Carter]

A frustrating thing about teaching new shooters is that they usually can't understand you all that well, thanks to the hearing protection necessary for safe practice. Of course, you can tell people the basics beforehand in the classroom, or while a firing line is cold, but there's no substitute for live feedback as someone is pulling a trigger. And while there is electronic hearing protection, it usually has to be supplemented by earplugs, especially on a busy indoor range. If only there was some device you could attach to a firearm to bring the muzzle blast down to non-deafening levels...

I'm talking about suppressors, of course, and the version of the S&W M&P22 Compact for today's review is tailor-made for them, as it has a 3/8” x 24 threaded barrel and an adapter kit. So while we are all waiting for the various Hearing Protection Act bills to promulgate a technology that's been in common use for a century (including in European countries with otherwise pervasive gun control), here's my take on a training gun that is ready for when our laws change:

Features and Foibles

The M&P22 Compact is Smith and Wesson's second .22 doppelgänger, after the full-size M&P22. Unlike its bigger brother, which is a dead ringer for a full-size M&P pistol, the Compact's dimensions are not quite the same as the ever-popular Shield. That's a bit of a miss - this gun would have been an awesome trainer had it fit in all the same holsters.

The rest of the pistol's layout is very familiar. There is a usable, M&P-service-pistol-sized thumb safety, as well as an adjustable rear sight with a typical three-white-dot sight picture. The hinged trigger is much the same as a centerfire M&P, but I haven't had the opportunity to compare it to the new "2.0" versions Smith released this year.

Range Report

Sadly, I did not get the chance to test the M&P22 Compact with a suppressor. Nevertheless, I found that the pistol was mostly reliable, although not quite as problem-free as my old Ruger SR22. Accuracy was also okay for a non-target .22 of this size, but again, the groups I shot were not as good as the SR22.


There are a number of small .22s out there with threaded barrels out of the box, and the S&W sits firmly in the middle of the pack. It's a good choice for people who like M&P ergonomics, but maybe not a hands-down recommendation for everyone. If Congress ever gets around to removing suppressors from the National Firearms Act, I'll see about re-reviewing the M&P22 with a can in place.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Feel the storm? It's coming

Monday, September 04, 2017

Links: Gun Blogrollin'

After taking some firearms training courses this year, I realize I've been laboring under a sort of "Gunning"-Kruger effect: the illusion that I am a better shooter than I really am. Of course, the only way to remedy that is to train more and learn more, hence today's links to information-packed gun blog goodness (h/t to Bores and Blades, which itself is a worthy edition to the Shangrila Towers blogroll):

Active Response Training - Experienced police instructor Greg Ellifritz is one of the premier shooting and tactical skills trainers in the Ohio area. His webpage is a great source of original content and aggregated info from around the web - check out the super-useful "Weekend Knowledge Dumps" if you don't believe me.

tacticalprofessor - Claude Werner has a "very particular set of skills" (U.S. Army Special Ops, real estate research director, IDPA competitor, shooting instructor), and he brings them all to bear in his online publications and website, tacticalprofessor. I think most readers will appreciate Werner's scholarly approach to the fundamentals of pistolcraft.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Miscellany: 2017 Volvo S90 T5 review - Bil På Svenska

The guys and I took a big road trip across the Great Smoky Mountains last month for the solar eclipse, and we decided to do it in style, upgrading our rental car to the Volvo S90. Covering almost 1,000 miles in four days tells you a lot about a car, so here are the high and low points of Volvo's flagship sedan:


Standard Equipment

At the rental center, we had a choice between the Volvo and the Cadillac CTS. We opted for the S90 because even a low-level model has all the tech you could expect from a $40,000+ car: keyless entry, heads-up display, LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, blindspot detection...the list goes on. It's a refreshing change if you're used to being nickel-and-dimed by the German automakers.

Interior Space

The S90 is sized like a 5-series or an E-class, but thanks to its front wheel-drive layout, there is an insane amount of space for the rear seats. The person behind me could literally put one foot in front of the other in his footwell, and even had enough space to work on a laptop. If you're used to big family sedans like the Toyota Avalon, you'll feel right at home here.

Fuel Economy

The base S90 T5's turbo inline four (the T6 trim adds a supercharger) is remarkably thrifty. We hooned the Volvo through twisty mountain passes (including the famous "Tail of the Dragon"), long stretches of Carolina highway, and the urban jungles of Atlanta, and through it all the car managed to get a healthy 27 mpg. While premium gas is required, it's an impressive figure from a car as large as this.



While the S90's cabin is relatively well-insulated from wind and road noise even at triple-digit speeds, the powertrain doesn't do the car any favors. The engine can sound positively buzzy at high revs, and you never get the feeling of effortless power that you should out of a mid-size luxury car.

Handling and Acceleration

Perhaps the biggest knock against the S90 is what it's not - a sports sedan. With SUVs dominating the market (including the S90's stablemate, the XC90), there are few reasons to get a big luxury car if you're not scratching the performance itch. But Volvo has tuned the S90 to be a luxury cruiser, not a corner-carver or drag racer. It's quick and handles okay, but there is no getting away from the fact that it's not as engaging to drive as its competition.


We liked the Volvo a lot. While perhaps not the right car for people who put performance above all else, it was a huge upgrade from the bland econoboxes that form most rental car fleets. I'm not sure I'd ever actually buy one, but I'll be certain to give its smaller, sportier siblings a try the next time I'm car-shopping.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Miscellany: Anna Ruby Falls

The uncharitable would call the town of Helen, Georgia a tourist trap, what with its kitschy faux-Bavarian architecture and obvious focus on catering to Atlanta weekenders. If you can look past that stuff, you can take a visit to the nearby Chattahoochee National Forest and its crown jewel, Anna Ruby Falls.

The hike to the falls is easy and scenic - a paved path neighboring sun-kissed rapids.

Legend has it that a local Confederate soldier, Colonel John Nichols, found the waterfalls while riding in the area. He gave them both the name Anna Ruby, after his only daughter.

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