Saturday, 27 March 2021

The Death Spancel & Others by Katharine Tynan, Swan River Press / Beatific Vermin by D.P. Watt, (Keynote Edition VII) Egaeus Press / Glamour Ghoul – The Passions And Pain Of The Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi, by Sandra Niemi, Feral House

Peter Bell, in his Introduction to this collection, defines a 'death spancel' ahead of the two tales, which share the name; briefly, a single strip of flesh, from head to feet, used to, literally, bind the soul of one passed to one still living; invariably for a nefarious reason pertaining to the 'Occult.' If this intimates content of the macabre, you'd be mistaken. Lovers of late Victorian and Edwardian ghost fiction will assuredly adore the restrained literary quality of these tales, shining golden, dust-mote beams of waning sunlight across forgotten rooms of half-glimpsed tenants. 
 This may be the most significant collection from Swan River since Henry Mercer's recovered 'November Night Tales,' five years ago. Known mainly as a poet and novelist, this – incredibly – is the first time Tynan's lesser known short ghost fiction has been drawn from her four original collections, published between 1895 and 1906, and the era's (inevitable) literary periodicals. Considering their consistent quality, it is, perhaps, the snobbery ghost stories still receive from the larger publishing houses, such as Faber & Faber, that they remained for so long under their radar.
 Atypically for most budding writers, the bulk of Tynan's short fiction didn't appear in print until her middle years. Coming from comfortable, middle-class Dublin, her formative poetry – though well-received – sold little. The friendship and encouragement of new supporters such as WB Yeats, however, helped Tynan branch out into freelance journalism. Connecting to her roots in Irish nationalism, "many of her articles display an acute social consciousness; among the issues she regularly tackled were the treatment of shop girls, unmarried mothers, infanticide, capital punishment, and the education of the poor. Her rapid production of novels (from 1895 to 1930 she wrote more than one-hundred pot-boilers) also did much to boost the family's finances." (Clarke, Dictionary of Irish Biography).
 As well as the tales themselves, a second strength of this collection are the short poems, which follow several of these tales, sharing a setting or theme. So, for example, the tale 'A Sentence of Death,' which features the ominous appearance of a ghostly carriage, is followed by the poem, 'The Dead Coach,' while 'The Little Ghost' tale is followed by a poem of the same name. Far from feeling redundant, these additions serve to extend and slightly deepen the motif of what has just played out.
 As with Swan River's previous release – Rosa Mulholland's 'Not To Be Taken At Bedtime' – cover designers Meggan Kerlhi and Brian Coldrick have excelled themselves, producing one of the publisher's finest; a vision of swirling decadence in greens and burnt orange.

* * *

D.P. Watt returns with a cutdown version of his dystopias; and – particularly for first-time readers - they are the better for it, their relative brevity foregrounding the author's strengths in his now established field.The first – 'These, His Other Worlds' – concerns a biographical researcher's ambiguous relationship with his subject and his mysterious obsessions. The pervasive question of the unreliable narrator soon arises when a dangerous portal appears to have been opened; but, who, in truth, has opened it? A strong opener and one my favourites.
  Standing-out elsewhere, 'Noumenon' concerns a shop-window shadow-play and the meltdown of a life it increasingly reflects. 'Serendipity' presents a militaristic world of masked pleasure girls, where their stilled expressions, reflected in their single monikers, are the only emotive appearances; ones moulded and repressed. 'Clematis, White and Purple' sees a man's focus upon his unloved view of a derelict shack and hoardings, and its silent beckoning tenant, hiding another threat; one as organic and more pernicious.
 'The Proclamation,' though first published three years ago, feels especially prescient in this time of pandemic. I wonder at Watts' intention. It reads to this reviewer as a satire on public idleness and its societal consequence, where an inner angry voice of ultimate guilt is too awful – and aweful – to contemplate.
 If Egaeus's 'Keynote Editions' can restrict an author from extrapolation to produce their best work, it also enforces a discipline, which allows him / her an opportunity to highlight their strengths. 'Beatific Vermin,' with the best in this series, proves this.

* * *
In mid-Fifties' America, KABC was a small TV station, with a small viewership, running on a shoestring. One night, Hunt Stromberg Jr. - the station's head honcho – attended the 1954 Bal Caribe Costume Ball; the time and place to be for all budding Hollywood wannabes to impress the community's big-wigs and – just maybe – get signed. 
  Amongst the costumed was 31-year-old actor, dancer and glamour model, Maila Nurmi, whose career was going nowhere. Inspired by Charles Addams' 'Homebodies' cartoon strip in The New Yorker, she came as her own version of the Addams Family matriarch. Already of striking appearance, (prominent cheekbones, upswept eyebrows and heavy-lidded eyes), thanks to her Finnish parentage, Nurmi's Gothic dress and make-up easily won the night. Stromberg – before departing - made a professional approach, wanting her to 'win the night' each Saturday on KABC-TV. He had access to old horror movies in the public domain and wanted Maila, in similar costume and make-up, to draw attention to the unremarkable series by presenting each one in character. 
  She'd been enigmatically silent at the Bal Caribe. Now, to his delight, Stromberg also discovered a voice as droll as it was scabrous. Maila, to avoid copyright issues with Addams, modified her Bal Caribe costume herself, over-tightening the waist and highlighting the plunging neckline to more emphasise the 'sexy vampire' look. Thus, Vampira was 'born.' She described her look as "one part Greta Garbo, two parts each of the Dragon Lady, Evil Queen (from Disney's 'Snow White')...Theda Bara, three parts Norma Desmond, and four parts Bizarre magazine."
 Partnering Maila with in-house script-writer Peter Robinson, (riffing on her already droll persona) delivered, each Saturday night, darkly comic gold. So began two years of national fame and accolade – well beyond KABC's previous profile - Nurmi would, seemingly, never repeat. Friends with James Dean and Marlon Brando, she'd already had a baby with Orson Welles a decade before (whose role here leaves a bitter taste) she'd had to give up for adoption. So, Nurmi, at least, had the contacts. Now, she needed this to be a springboard to more secure acting work.
 Sandra Niemi – Maila's niece – tells the intriguing story, first objectively and, in the final chapters, personally. A remote Preacher father, leaving her mother for too long to bring up Maila, her brother and sister alone, and a consequent alcohol problem, left Maila growing into the increasingly estranged wild child of the family, finding only unsatisfying short-term and exploitative work, but solace in reincarnation and the afterlife.
 Nurmi's last twenty-five years harboured as many personal highs as lows. Ongoing issues of contractual copyright about the ownership of the 'Vampira' name and image consumed too much of her time. In the mid-Eighties, she sued the latest horror host Cassandra Peterson, whose 'Elvira' character she deemed too close for comfort. She lost. Considering the reneging on promises Nurmi had been expected to accept since her character's Fifties success, the press and the poverty this subsequently consigned her to, her feeling of betrayal was entirely understandable. Yet, like Louise Brooks before her – of whom she was a fan – her later years brought reflective appreciation from a new generation to whom her dark double-entendre and anarchic punning resonated, lauded as being ahead of their time. (Her life's trajectory of rise --- fall --- rise somewhat mirrored Brooks's own).
 That Sandra Niemi saw her cousin only rarely, lends an additional yen for empathy, not only from Niemi herself as memoirist, but also to this reader.

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