So, the story concerns Luther Heggs (played by Don Knotts), a middle-aged man who has always dreamed of being a Famous Journalist or other sort of hero, but has never been able to rise above his job as a typesetter working in the basement of the Courier-Express, the weekly newspaper of the town of Rachel, Kansas. The opening scenes of the movie establish Luther at the butt of just about everyone’s joke in the town, and given his tendency to jump to conclusions and become almost hysterical over the slightest odd occurence, the audience is not supposed to be surprised.
Then comes news that the Old Simmons Mansion, the site of a notorious murder-suicide decades ago which has been a decaying housed rumored to be haunted all of those years, is going to be bulldozed down soon, as the only heir to the Simmons’ is coming back to town around the time of the anniversary of the murder-suicide. Luther is dared/assigned to spend a night in the house on the anniversary of the horrid events and write an exclusive, the first time he has been offered a by-line at the paper in his whole life.
Luther also has had a lifelong crush on Alma Parker (played by Joan Staley), who is also being wooed by Luther’s most frequent bully, the only official reporter for the local newspaper. Being teased as a coward by said bully in front of Alma, Luther declares he will undertake the assignment.
Luther lives in a boarding house whose other tenants are all played by a gaggle of famous character actors of the period. And who amp up the fear by telling Luther the versions of the murder-suicide that each of them has heard.
Luther goes to the house, has a few very comedic misadventures that show how over-excited and fearful he is… and then the real spookiness happens. The painting of the last Mrs Simmons transforms during a flash of lightning from a regular painting to one with a pair of garden shears sticking out of it, with blood dripping down the canvas. The organ in the tower starts playing, but no one is at the keys. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret stair way to the staircase. Other spookiness happens until Luther finally faints in terror.
The next day, Luther tries to tell his story to the editor and the only other reporter, and they translate his tale into a compelling story that runs on the front page of the next edition of the Courier-Express. This leads to a number of unexpected actions. Many people in the community think of Luther as a hero. The wife of the manager of the local bank happens to be the head of the local seance society and since she essentially owns the bank, suddenly the Simmons heir is prevented from getting his clear title to the house.
I should pause at this point and confess that despite being listed as an uproarious comedy, this movie did give me nightmares as a kid. However, the nightmares were because of the scene where Luther is forced to give a speech at the local community Fourth of July Celebration. It’s a scene that is extremely painful for anyone who suffers from excess empathy and can’t watch embarrassing scenes.
Anyway, the heir to the Simmons mansion sues Luther for libel, and uses the trial to trot out all of the most embarrassing stories of Luther trying to impress his classmates and neighbors throughout his life. Finally, the judge approves a jury request to go spend the night in the haunted house to see once and for all whether what Luther recounted in his story really happened.
Of course, under the observation of the jurors, judge, and neighbors, nothing untoward happens. The cringe ramps up as Luther tries to make things happen as they did on the night. It becomes clear that her lawsuit if going to go against Luther, and everyone who has supported him up to this point rejects him.
…except for Alma.
As the rest of the community leaves, with Luther standing in front of the house pleading for someone to believe him, she goes back inside, and finds the lever that opens the secret bookcase. Soon, the spooky organ is playing itself, and Luther goes back inside, finds himself confronting a fiend threatening Alma’s life. Eventually, Luther is vindicated before the whole community, and the truth about that murder-suicide decades ago is revealed.
Many years ago I mentioned that this movie was one of my favorite fantasy/horror films, and a friend got really upset at me for that claim. The ghost within the story is explained away in the final act, the person pointed out. Also, the entire movie is framed as a comedy about how easily Knotts’ character is sent into flights of fancy. “It’s a comedy with a fake ghost, not a fantasy or horror story,” my friend insisted.
I have a number of quibbles with that. First, there are a lot of very spooky moments in the middle of the film that definitely qualify as horror. Second, if you can’t accept tales about people investigating claims of the paranormal as part of the genre of sf/f then I don’t want to know you. And third, in the final scene of the movie, after Luther and Alma exchange their wedding vows, we see the chapel’s Wurlizter organ playing itself! So, sorry, just because most of the happenings (but certainly not all—in most cuts of the movie the bleeding portrait is never explained!) have a mundane explanation, that doesn’t mean that one of the murdered people didn’t hang around as a ghost.
I know what I loved about the film is that Luther—the guy no one in town takes seriously and who is bullied for not being sufficiently manly—is the hero who gets the happy ending. And I like to think that he had a long career afterward solving haunted house mysteries with the help of Alma and their ghostly sidekick.
Part of the reason I decided it was time to write about this movie was this story (which was included in last week’s Friday Five): Joan Staley, Actress in ‘The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,’ Dies at 79 – She also slapped Elvis Presley in ‘Roustabout,’ sang to Audie Murphy in ‘Gunpoint’ and played Shame sidekick Okie Annie on ‘Batman’.
As a gay kid growing up in a very conservative and uptight denomination, I understand why a lot of people dislike Christmas music. I understand that what some people hear when those songs play is, “You must conform to this belief system that has oppressed you, or else!” Seriously, some sacred music provokes memories of very bad experiences for me, too, so I get it.
My particular idiosyncrasy is that traditional religious Christmas songs just don’t register that way for me. I can sing “O, Come All Ye Faithful” in more than one language (my Latin’s a bit rusty, but…). I love singing along to “Angels We Have Heard on High” because when I do it bring back memories the many Christmas concerts where I either sang it or played in the orchestra. In my head, I’m singing the tenor, and bass, and alto part (and wishing I could still hit all the notes for the soprano), as well as playing the trumpet and baritone horn parts.
So, while I understand intellectually that those particular Christmas songs are sacred hymns, to me they’re just part of the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” extravaganza. Yes, “O, Holy Night” brings tears to my eyes, but is the wonder I used to experience every night when I lived in tiny towns in the Central Rocky Mountains, where we could walk outside, look up, and see the entire Milky Way, not being washed out by the lights of a city. Which is the same sense of wonder I used to get when I was a very small child laying on the floor in our living room with the Christmas tree lights providing most of the light in the room. It’s why sometimes during this time of the year, my husband will come out of the computer room and find me sitting in the darkened living room, staring at the Christmas tree.I think part of the reason is because music was a part of the holiday season for as long as I can remember. Every year Mom would pick up at least one or two new Christmas albums. For a good part of the 1960s every November would signal the arrival of such albums at gas stations and other place that you wouldn’t expect. You could get a whole vinyl album full of song recorded by various people (some names quite famous, others not) for practically nothing when you filled up your gas tank, or made some other purchase. Those made up a rather large part of our collection.
Dad mostly tolerated the music. The only album that I know he actually liked was Elvis’ Christmas Album, because Dad was a bit Elvis fan.
Anyway, while we sang some of the sacred Christmas hymns in church, and some of those Christmas concerts I performed in over the years were at churches or with religious groups, I spent a whole lot more time singing and listening to Christmas music at home. Where “Up on the House Top” or “Sleigh Ride” or “Silver Bells” or “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth” or “Snoopy’s Christmas” or “I Wanna Hippopotamus for Christmas” was just as likely to come up as any of the religious songs.
My current iTunes library contains 13.9gigabytes of Christmas music. That’s 2,657 songs which would take about 5¼ days of continuous playing to get through the lot. Which I know is totally bonkers. And the fact that there are Christmas albums still on my wish list that I haven’t acquired, yet, is even more mind-boggling for some.
Then there are albums that aren’t actually on my wishlist, but I wouldn’t mind adding to the collection if I could. I was reminded of some of this this weekend when Mom texted me about find a box of cassette tapes of Christmas music, including some that are kind of my fault. Twenty-two years ago (the first Christmas after Ray died) I spent several days visiting Mom for Christmas, but because Mom was still working in retail at the time, that meant for several of those days I was hanging out at her place by myself.
It just so happened that she had recently found in the back of a closet a box full of old vinyl Christmas albums, including a bunch that—so far as I can tell—have never been re-issued on CD or digital. I went out and bought a bunch of cassette tapes and spent one day recording all my favorites onto cassette. I made two copies of each—one for me and one for Mom (because she liked to listen to music in her car). After I showed her the first day’s work, she asked me to transfer several more.
I wish I could say that, when I had the chance a few years later, I transferred those recordings to compact disc. I’m not sure why I didn’t. But I’m glad to know that Mom still has hers (though I suspect the quality may have degraded a bit by now, and I have no idea the quality of the player she’s listening to them on).
I’m not obsessed with finding those old odd albums. I just wouldn’t mind if I happened to find one had been issued at least once in a more modern format. Just because listening to an old recording that you used to hear often is kind of like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years, and sharing stories and laughs about things you did together a long time ago.
It’s another sense of wonder, like looking at a twinkling Christmas tree in the dark and remembering the bright starlit skies of yore.
I don’t remember much about the first Christmas season after Ray died (because he died less than two weeks before Thanksgiving and I was a complete wreck emotionally and mentally for the next few months), but I do remember commenting to friends about the fact that the Christmas coffees lasted well into January that year since I was only making coffee on the days I wasn’t at the office, whereas when Ray had been alive he made coffee every single day of the week.
The next year was the first Christmas season that Michael and I were living together, but since Michael doesn’t drink coffee, again it took me longer than a month to use up all the coffee. A year or two later, I couldn’t find Jingle Java at the local grocery store (and not long after that many grocery stores cut back on how many types of whole bean coffee were offered for sale), and I wound up scouring stores looking for a substitute. Because I’d mentioned it, Michael picked up a second bag of Peet’s for me when he saw it. I found another coffee company’s Christmas blend as well, and again, it took me well into January before I had used up all the Christmas Coffee.
I think it was the next year when, not having been able to find a third brand of Christmas coffee by the second weekend in December, I found a bag of the newly introduced Starbuck’s Thanksgiving Blend, so I grabbed that and it became part of the rotation.
In the years since, I’ve gotten better at looking in stores at the brands I don’t usually buy to find Holiday blends in November and December. I find so many different holiday blends that, since I don’t usually let myself start using them until the week of (U.S.) Thanksgiving, I often don’t finish off all of the Christmas blends until about Valentine’s Day.
The first time that happened, I asked Michael if maybe I was being a big crazy about the Christmas blends. He asked if I thought I’d gather so many that I didn’t get them used up before the following Christmas season, and I said I was pretty sure that wasn’t a problem. He smiled, shrugged, and said, “Seems like a pretty harmless kind of crazy. You shouldn’t worry about it.”
So I don’t.
I have to admit, when I pulled all the bags of Holiday Blends out of the pantry a few weeks ago, I was a bit surprised that there were eight different blends. I honestly thought I’d only gotten five or maybe six.
And I work from home more days each week than I did just a year ago, which means I go through coffee faster—because I still only make coffee at home on those days that I don’t go into the office. So I probably will finish all of these off by some point in February, again.
Assuming I don’t find any new blends for sale somewhere and give into temptation to pick up just one more…
First, let’s let some of the headlines speak for themselves:
And this one nearly local to me: Church youth leader from Marysville charged with child molestation.
The Dan Savage quote above really sums it up: we have had the means to notice this epidemic for decades, but we continue to turn a blind eye to it. We let religious institutions shame the victims of their leaders. We let them move offenders to new jobs where they still have access to the types of people they victimize. We often give the religious institutions a pass when we discover that they have aided and abetted in these crimes.
Worse than that, we keep acting surprised when a religious leader (or a politician who flaunts their religious beliefs) who has been vehemently anti-gay turns out to be a sexual criminal of one sort or another. Instead of recognizing the pattern and staying on the look out of other telltale signs, we talk about how it’s just an opinion, or hide behind that disingenuous phrase “traditional values.”
We’re starting to get better. One of the previous times I wrote about the specific tendency of sexual predators to seek out jobs as Youth Pastors, I griped about the fact that news organizations often didn’t identify the arrested or convicted person as a pastor. They would often bury the fact that the criminal was a former paster somewhere in the story. Because once the situation gets to an arrest, the church or other religious institution has (sometimes very reluctantly) fired the person. That pissed me off for a couple of reasons. If a doctor is fired by a hospital, we still refer to that person as a doctor. They are currently unemployed, but they are still a doctor.
And it is newsworthy how the sex predator used the culture of religious institutions to commit their crimes. Also, very importantly: the sexual predators were employed as pastors are the time they committed the crimes.
So notice that in several of the stories above the news agency hasn’t just used the religious title in the headline, in more of the cases they didn’t put the word “former.” Though I admit that in two of the stories above, the first version I saw included that designation as a former pastor, and I specifically looked for other stories about the same crimes that didn’t do that. I failed on one, but the fact that I could find those headlines is, I think a little bit of progress.
I have one other story I consider to be in the same category as the others, even though it involves neither a pastor nor any allegations of sexual assault:
Father Abandoned Son on Side of Highway Because He Thought He Might Be Gay. This story as a few more details on the same incident: Father Charged With Abandoning “Gay” Child Outside Closed Police Station For Them To Find Him New Family.
Why do I consider this the same as the others: one of the most galling aspects of the pastor-as-sexual-molester phenomenon, is that the predator is supposed to be looking out for and even protecting the people they victimize. We also know that the reason so many of these predators go into the ministry and spout their homophobic opinions is to deflect from their own sexual proclivities. Society pressures people to be ashamed of their sexual orientation, and one of the symptoms of that toxicity is the homophobia-spouting sexual predator.
The father who abandoned his son on the road was supposed to care for that child. He is supposed to protect him from bad forces in the world around him, including homophobia. He’s not supposed to be one of those bad forces attacking his son. And he feels free to be such a bad force because of that same toxicity that society fosters—the entire homophobic/misogynist/xenophobic stew that people call “traditional values.”
I don’t have any sum-up for this, other than to say that abusive behavior, sexual or otherwise, isn’t a bug in the traditional values system—it’s a feature.
I don’t know exactly how old I was the first time I watched The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but since I’m pretty sure that it was on the Saturday afternoon Science Fiction Theatre on Channel 2 out of Denver (long the home of “Blinky the Clown”). Which means that I couldn’t have been more the 10 years old. I know the second time I saw it was a late Friday night Nightmare Theatre offering during a time I was allowed to stay up after midnight on Fridays, so that means I was between 12 and 14 years old. The third time was many, many years later as an Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode… and it was one of the times I really wanted a means to mute the commenters. Because as campy and awful as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is, I’m actually very fond of it.
And it really is a poorly made film on so many levels. It was released with the title The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but yet when you get to the end of the film the credits appear under a title card reading The Head That Wouldn’t Die. The direction is clunky. A lot of the dialog is more than just clunky, it’s actually a wonder some of the actors could get the lines out! The car accident scene is so badly edited, it makes Plan 9 from Outer Space seem like a masterpiece.
And then there is the plot: Dr. Bill Cortner is a brilliant surgeon who has some unorthodox ideas—so unorthodox that his father (a more famous surgeon) urges him to take up a new profession. Dr. Cortner is taking his new fiancée, Jan Compton, to the family’s country home (I think to meet his mother), when they have a car accident. Cortner gets out with barely a scratch, but Jan is neatly decapitated. Somehow Cortner has the presence of mind to carry her head to his locked lab in the basement of the family country house, where Cortner’s creepy lab assistant, Kurt, helps him set Jan’s head into a pan of blood and attach various life sustaining equipment to the head.
There’s a monstrous Thing in the Closet of the lab that occasionally growls incoherently and bangs on the heavily locked door. We are told the Thing is the result of a previous failed experiment, but given no other details. Jan can mysteriously talk despite not having lungs nor any sort of breathing apparatus. And Kurt the assistant has a serious deformity on one arm.
Jan pleads with them to let her die, but Dr. Cortner has plan! He will find a body to transplant Jan’s head onto and they will be able to live happily ever after. He then drives into the city to search strip clubs, night clubs, and even a beauty contest to find a suitable body.
While Cotrner’s off doing that Jan and Kurt the Assistant have existential debates about the meaning of life and horror. It is also during the middle that we learn of Kurt’s sadistic streak, as he takes delight in teasing the Thing in the closet. Jan, meanwhile, realizes that somehow she had developed psychic powers, and she starts communicating with the Thing in the closet.
Eventually, Dr. Cortner settles on a suitably sexy body to steal of Jan: a model whose body is perfect, but she has a scar on her face which she is ashamed of. Lying that he can remove the scar, Cortner lures the model up to the family’s home where his lab is. Once there, he drugs her, and begins to prepare for the surgery.
Jan begs him not to do it, but Cortner is determined.
Jan eggs the Thing in the closet on, and in an extremely bloody finale it escapes and kills both Kurt and Corter. It’s egregiously gorey, and I remain a bit surprised that this movie was shown during the afternoon on a local TV station.
The Thing in the Closet, by the way, is played by Eddie Carmel, also known as “The Jewish Giant.” Eddie suffered from a form of gigantism and acromegaly because of an incurable tumor on his pituitary gland.
The fight has also started a fire, so the lab is burning down. Jan instructs the Thing from the closet to carry the unconscious woman to safety, but to leave Jan there to burn with the rest of the house.
Depending on which edit you see, the movie’s sleaze in the middle outweighs the extreme gore of the ending. The scenes of Cortner looking for a body include a lot of footage of the strippers stripping, at least one instance of models wrestling, and the women opening talking about how no one is interested in them other than for their bodies. Apparently full frontally nude scenes were filmed and intended for the international release of the film.
Despite everything wrong with it, the film still works. And mostly because of Virginia Leith’s performance as Jan. I mean, the film begins with a chillingly delivered line (over a totally black screen), “Please let me die.” The opening of the film is essentially a flashback from the moment that Jan realizes how her fiancé has revived her. Despite spending most the film sitting under the table with her head sticking out the pan, Leith makes you believe. Even the overwrought philosophizing during the debate with Kurt is loaded with pathos. She also gets some commentary in there about Cortner’s obsession with finding the perfect
sex doll body for her, completely disregarding her wishes and opinions.
I don’t remember ever having nightmares because of this film. I’m not sure why that is. I certainly didn’t pick up on the gay subtext a lot of people seem to see in the film. The Thing in the Closet seems to be the component that everyone who claims there is gay subtext focuses on—but Cortner is so obviously the sort of narcissistic heterosexual man who only values women for the sex he can get from them, that I just don’t see it.
I do know that when I first saw the film I identified very strongly with both Jan and the Thing in the Closet. Jan refers to herself as the ultimate horror, but I think it would be more apt to describe her as the ultimate Person Without Agency. Which is why I really empathized with her. As a queer kid (technically closeted the first time I saw it, but I didn’t actually know yet that I was gay, so closeted isn’t quite accurate) with an abusive parent, I had almost as little control over my life as Jan. And of course, the way that Kurt bullied the Thing was also very familiar to me.
The ending of the story isn’t exactly a surprise: the mad scientist destroyed by his own creation is a very popular trope, after all. Though the level of gore in the ending was hardly normal when the movie was made. But again, Jan’s final comments, like the chilling opening line and her description of why death would be a kinder fate than what Cortner planned for her, elevates the film above the schlock.
And, honestly, schlock often makes for a great popcorn movie.
I linked to Virginia Leith’s obituary a couple of weeks ago, and it kicked off a trip down memory lane. One of the things I turned up was this fascinating story about the young man who played the monster in the closet: Eddie Carmel, The Jewish Giant.
I did National Novel Writing Month again this year, with my project being to get The Trickster Alliance out of it’s doldrums and possibly finished. I hit the default NaNoWriMo word goal of 50,000 words on Nov 22. Since in the past I’ve hit higher numbers, I then went for my stretch goal of beating my previous high word count, was was 66,000+ words. I hit 66,000 on the 29, and got a bit over 68000 on the 30, though apparently I waiting until too close to midnight to post my final number, because my stats don’t show the final word count.
I’ve spent part of the last couple of days figuring out how many of those scenes to transfer over to the book file. I know not all of them. There were several scenes that I wound up re-writing from scratch four or more times before I had a version that actually worked, for instance. I also wrote a couple of scenes that I am 99% certain aren’t needed in the story, but I needed to write in order to figure something else out.
The book isn’t finished, but it is significantly closer to it, and two really big plot problems that had bee holding me up for a really long time were sorted out. Sometimes having a deadline makes my subconcious spit out an answer, you know?
Now I do my annual switching of gears. The Christmas party is only 18 days away, and I have to have the annual Christmas Ghost Story ready by then. Often at the end of November I haven’t yet decided which of my many possible Christmas Ghost Story plots I’m going to work on this year. I have a bunch, and every year I think of at one or three more, so I’m not in any danger of running out of ideas at the moment. I actually started on one of the ideas in late October, so that’s likely to be this year’s tale.
Not all of the plots I’ve thought up for Christmas Ghost stories are set in the same universe as my novels, but the last several years those have been the plots I’ve been going for. I think part of the reason is because it’s easy to transition from working on one of my fantasy novels to a short story in the same universe.
Anyway, I need to get to it!
Today is World AIDS Day. Each year, I spend part of the day remembering people I have known who left this world too soon because of that disease.
So: Frank, Mike, Tim, David, Todd, Chet, Jim, Steve, Brian, Rick, Stacy, Phil, Mark, Michael, Jerry, Walt, Charles, Thomas, Mike, Richard, Bob, Mikey, James, Lisa, Todd, Kerry, Glen, Brad, and Jack. Some of you I didn’t know for very long. Two of you were relatives. One of you was one of my best friends in high school and college.
I miss you all. It was a privilege to know you.
“Not everybody is equipped with the facts on how to protect themselves and others, and stigma and discrimination remain a life-changing reality for people living with HIV… That’s why we’re asking you to Rock the Ribbon Together in 2019 – to stand in solidarity with people living with HIV, raise awareness, challenge stigma, end loneliness and isolation, and insist peer support is available for anyone who needs it.”
“Communities contribute to the AIDS response in many different ways. Their leadership and advocacy ensure that the response remains relevant and grounded, keeping people at the centre and leaving no one behind.”