Archive | November, 2012

Dead Man’s Land

25 Nov

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock recently, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that the Sherlock Holmes industry has never been in ruder health than it is at the moment. There is the hugely successful feature film franchise starring the ‘bromance’ pairing of Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law. Then there is the excellent BBC series Sherlock, made by Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, which features a modern-day Holmes played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch. Rather less impressive is the tacky and derivative Elementary, which has Johnny Lee Miller playing Holmes as a cross between C3P0 and Rain Man and, to add insult to injury, features a female ‘Joan Watson’ to boot! Nevertheless, despite its (many) limitations, Elementary, like Sherlock and the feature films, shows the enduring popularity of the character worldwide. At a recent author and blogger event at the offices of Simon & Schuster, I had the good fortune to meet Robert Ryan, the author of Dead Man’s Land, a novel which introduces an intriguing new twist on Holmesian mythology.

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The Beast with Five Fingers

18 Nov

I regard W F Harvey as a somewhat unjustly neglected author of supernatural tales. For a long time this writer’s work has been found only in rare and second-hand bookshops at exorbitant prices and it is only recently that his distinguished writings have become more widely available. A ghost story writer in what one may call a purely amateur capacity, Harvey penned several minor masterpieces of the uncanny, which refreshingly avoided the cliché while at the same time creating a wonderfully eerie sense of fear. Although he was by all accounts a fine, gentle and lovable man, he found pleasure and success in creating a series of dark, disturbing and frightening tales. Yet, paradoxically, Harvey’s work is remarkable for its subtlety and restraint. Like M R James he relies on the reader to pick up suggestions from the text to create his or her own horrid imaginings. However, unlike James, Harvey’s prose is straightforward and quite modern, lacking that pseudo-gothic, academic tone of James and many other ghost story writers of the time. During his lifetime Harvey penned four collections of short stories, the most famous of which was 1928’s The Beast with Five Fingers. The title story of this collection is one of the most anthologized, not to mention downright scary, ghost stories in the genre.

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Where is the Mona Lisa?

11 Nov

The answer to the above question may seem self-evident: in the Louvre. But the matter is not quite as straightforward as it looks. The Mona Lisa is better known in continental Europe as La Gioconda, or ‘the smiling woman’ – the word means the same as the antiquated English term ‘jocund’. It was painted, as everyone knows, by the great Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa was a young married woman who was about 24 when Leonardo met her. She was the wife of a man 20 years her senior, and when Leonardo started to paint her around 1500 she had just lost her child (her husband had to hire jesters and musicians to make her smile during the early sittings). For some reason Leonardo became obsessed with her, and went on painting her for several years, always dissatisfied with his work. He gave the unfinished portrait to Mona Lisa’s husband when he left Florence in 1505. This, we assume, is the famous portrait in the Louvre. Yet this raises a puzzling question. If it was given, unfinished, to Mona Lisa’s husband in 1505, how did it end up in the possession of King Francis I at Fontainbleu, in a finished state, a mere forty or so years later? Also, why, in 1584, did the art historian Lomazzo publish a book on painting in which he refers to ‘the Gioconda AND the Mona Lisa’, as if they were two separate paintings?

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Super-Supernatural

4 Nov

The US TV series Supernatural (2005-) follows two brothers who were brought up in a rather unusual family business. Now a small screen stalwart, the show has also had international success that has earned it year after year of season pick-ups. For those who don’t know, Sam and Dean Winchester are monster-hunting brothers who drive around the back-roads of America in search of the things that go bump in the night. They’ve encountered everything from vampires and werewolves to pagan gods and shapeshifters, who they regularly dispatch with help from their father’s journal and fellow hunter Bobby Singer. Their father, John Winchester, taught them what it took to be hunters from childhood after the murder of their mother at the hands of a powerful demon, who the brothers finally caught up with and killed at the end of season two. For seven years the series has stayed strong, balancing the personal stories of Sam and Dean versus the increasingly ambitious narrative of evil messing with humanity on Earth. After several seasons of summoning every kind of spook, spectre, monster and angel to throw at the unlikely pair of demon hunters, the Supernatural writers finally played the literal God card at the end of series six, potentially making the Almighty himself the season villain. As ever on Supernatural, however, things did not quite turn out to be the way they at first seemed.

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