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02 December 2011 @ 11:32 pm
THIS BLOG HAS MOVED TO http://encyclopaediavanitatum.wordpress.com . I will not delete any of the posts, and I will not delete this blog, but I am no longer updating it. If you still wish to follow my posts, please click on the URL I have just provided. Thank you!
30 October 2011 @ 02:55 pm
Well, this comes right on time for Halloween, I suppose, the best time for reviewing ghost stories. I'll start by admitting that The Small Hand is the first and only book by Susan Hill that I have ever read. I've known about her books for a long time and I've been meaning to read what are, perhaps, her best-known novels, I'm the King of the Castle and The Woman in Black. I am still, I admit, waiting excitedly for the screen adaptation of the latter after watching its promising trailer. However, a few months ago I became fairly obsessed with purchasing and reading her most recent novella, The Small Hand. The initial hardback version was, indeed, a jewel of a book: the black and sky-blue arabesque emboss, its pleasingly diminutive format positively crying out "I might be small, but there's a dark story inside me, bursting from my pages", its overall "collectors' edition" aspect. Yes, I will admit I almost comitted the unforgivable sin of judging a book by its cover. However, my ongoing status of penniless student prevented me from laying my hands on this beautiful - but really quite expensive - edition. Instead, I patiently waited until it came out in paperback - by far not as attractive - to finally buy it.

I didn't get to read it until recently, but when I did start the book, I did so with a lot of enthusiasm. From the first chapter, however, I was sorely disappointed. Whenever I start reading a "ghost story", whether it be a classic or a modern one, I expect for it to do one main thing: create atmosphere. By "atmosphere" I don't mean "purple prose", just a fair amount of description, whether internal or external, that creates a sense of mystery and draws the reader into the story, making it feel as if he/she were living it, as if he/she were the one who met the ghost and had to find out its secret, its motives. In many ways, I believe, ghost stories resemble crime fiction: there should be mystery, some red herrings (but not an exggerated amount of red herrings), and everyone should hold a secret. Well, to cut a long story short, Susan Hill failed to do precisely that: to create an atmosphere. I am aware that a lot of people prefer stories to be told in a straightforward manner, but the way I see it, ghost stories must not be told too straightforwardly, or the mystery, the excitement, the thrills - they are all lost. I read a ghost story for the excitement, the goosebumps - well, with The Small Hand, they didn't happen. I could have read this book at any time of night and I would have been quite as calm as ever. From chapter one, all Susan Hill does is use a conversational tone, fit for chicklit, but not for horror/ terror. The amount of time that she uses adverbs such as "clearly", or syntagmas such as "for some reason" shows how she chose the easy way out, instead of using a smart narrative device to pull the reader in and establish a sense of unknown and uncanny. Such easy ways out serve only to make the story plain rather than interesting.

In short, it took me about seven chapters until I became somewhat drawn to the story (and the novella only numbers twenty-two short chapters). To get there, I had to survive cringeworthy dialogue (e.g. when asked why he wanted to revisit the derelict and supposedly haunted villa that is the centre of the story, the main character replies, embarrassingly: 'Oh - you know how some old places have a strange attractiveness. And I might want to retire to the country some day.') and paragraphs that contribute to demote the frail sense of atmosphere: He helped himself to more salad. The room had filled. I looked at the walls, which were lined with an extraordinary assortment of pictures, oils and watercolours, five deep in places - none of them was of major importance but every single one had merit and charm. The collection enhanced the pleasant room considerably. (Here, the adverb "consideringly" being another easy way out. At this point, I was shouting at the book 'how?? how does it "enhance the pleasant room"??? what is "considerably"???' ) Finally, at the beginning of chapter eight, there was an improvement: the main character's dream was refrenshingly uncanny and creates some sense of expectancy, of uncertainty. Then, the story goes on, mostly in a predictable manner, until the very end in chapter twenty-two, about which, quite honestly, I have mixed feelings. I am tempted to label it as "good, but not good enough": it is not as predictable as the rest of the plot, but it falls right flat and leaves the reader with no after-taste. That's right, nothing.

Again, the plot itself was unoriginal and lacked any kind of depth (be it stylistic, moral, philosophical or psychological), the pace was too fast and, really not much happened in-between the start and the end of the book. Mostly, the plot (and I don't have any sort of qualms about spoiling it for you - there is not much to spoil) goes like this: man (who is also an antiquarian/book dealer) stumbles upon derelict house and has some sort of encounter with a child's ghost - ghost starts haunting man - man goes back to the derelict house to face his own fears - man meets queer old lady (who might or might not be a ghost) - man faints and is retrieved by friendly acquaintances - man discovers he is suddenly (!) relieved of the ghost's presence and is sure the ghost will never haunt him again. That's it, for the most part. And I will stop here with my review, otherwise I may take this novella paragraph by paragraph and start pointing out all the various little things that made it such a disappointing reading experience. All in all, I must say that, having read The Small Hand, I am unlikely to read anything else by Susan Hill. It was utterly unconvincing. I also feel like it received a lot of undeserved praise based on the author's former success rather than the actual quality of the book itself.

I would not recommend Susan Hill's novella to other enthusiasts of the modern gothic and ghost stories: it has very little, if anything at all, to offer. If I were to rate it, I would probably gve it 2/5 points.
Current Mood: disappointed
07 August 2011 @ 02:15 pm
Having decided to get over the various generous offers of intimate and intensely satisfying (guaranteed!) services that are the only comments I get these days, here I am sharing yet another one of my finds with the universe.

I do love flea markets, and I usually end up leaving with at least one abandoned memory that appeals to me enough to make me take it home. This time, it was what I like to call "the grim-looking ladies":

Photo-postcard from 1917 (as the brief dedication on the verso declares) sent (or directly handed) to a relative in sign of respect and affection. I fished it from a sea of photo-postcards, because this one just seemed special. It depicts 3 or 4 generations of women, unless the small child is actually a boy, which wouldn't much surprise me, since it's hard to decide sometimes, seeing the androgynous nature of clothes and haircuts for children at that time. At a closer look, one can also deduce that the ladies in the picture must have been well-off: they are wearing quite a lot of jewellery (not all of it readily visible in my re-photograph, I'm afraid, so you'll probably have to take my word for it), including pendants, cross necklaces, earrings and a multitude of rings at a time when most people probably couldn't afford white bread or any bread at all. Why, however, is there not a man in the picture? Was the pater familias a military man and therefore off fighting in the war? Possibly. Was/Were the man/men in the family all recruited by the army anyway? Probably. Might this account for the ladies' (and especially the child's) grim expressions? Possibly. However it may be, they are certainly a delicious assortment of mixed feelings and suchlike.

Here, allow me to indulge in a bit of amateur physiognomy.

This lady looks like she's the oldest and happiest one of all. She doesn't look like she cares too much about whoever's been sent on the front, she's just kind of trying to enjoy her life. Also, the way she has noncommittally thrust her hands in her pockets and her posture almost makes her look like she's shrugging - it's as if she were saying "that's how life is and, frankly, I can't complain".

This lady looks kind of... distressed, to say the least. She's not focusing on the camera, she's just staring into the distance and she's holding her hands a bit like I do when I'm nervous or there's something on my mind. She's also slumping a little, so she's deffinitely not making an effort to look good in the picture (and photographs must have been all important at that time, since "photo sessions" were quite rare events), meaning that her mind is probably otherwise occupied.

This one, judging by her hollow-eyed expression and the big, sturdy cross necklace, is the family "nun". I would say she's very religious, and, possibly, superstitiously so. I think I dislike her, but she fascinates me. Could she be engaged? She's wearing a ring on her left ring finger, but it might just be a coincidence. Also, why is she the only one carrying a handbag? What's she got so important that she has to be carrying around at all times? Or maybe she's just trying to be posh (see large headbow as well), which completely crashes with her religiosity and makes me dislike her even more.

The child looks like she (he? I really can't tell) would rather be anywhere else. Tightly-crossed fingers and crossed legs tell of a defensive position: "I'm not happy with this, go away". Is this child's father or older brother or both away on the front? She (or he) certainly looks miserable.

Well, then, I wish I had more old photos to talk about, but I don't at the moment. Wish me luck though, I might be able to find some more soon.
Current Mood: okay
Current Music: New Century Classics - "Children of an Uncertain Future"
03 August 2011 @ 12:23 pm
Okay, I'm afraid this is going to be one hell of a short update, in which I am going to vent my anger. First of all, I have been pretty "loyal" to LJ throughout my "online life". My first ever blog was on LJ and I've spent many a day browsing fascinating, useful and educative posts in interesting communities. BUT lately it has become tiresome and annoying to have to wait for the servers to shake off, as it were, these "attacks". But this I can deal with. What really and truly gets on my nerves is the wealth of spam comments that I keep getting. Well, I DID NOT want to make this a "friends only" blog, nor did I want to restrict comments too much, because to me, the whole point of having a blog is keeping it accessible. If I didn't want to share my random ideas with the world, I wouldn't be on here in the first place. So PLEASE, LJ, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! Otherwise I will be forced to take steps and move this whole hullabaloo someplace else. :( *sigh* Do not fail me, LJ. :(

Really, and all I wanted to say in the first place was:

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

But then I saw the bunch of spam comments...
Current Mood: annoyed
13 June 2011 @ 10:35 pm
Finally got round to watching Sylvain Chomet's Les Triplettes de Belleville/ The Triplets of Belleville last night. And I must say: if you're in for an extraordinary car chase, then this is the movie to watch! >:D First, it has three of my favourite things in it: trains, wicked old ladies and nightmares. Then, it's a (mostly) silent movie, making it a feat of extraordinary animation and expressive, carricature-style characters parading on-screen for your entertainment.

I noticed that people who talk about it on-line tend to say that the movie is incredibly good despite the lack of dialogue. Well, it probably won't come as a surprise when I say that I belive it's a fantastic film because of the lack of dialogue. It just goes to prove that emotional language (via gestures, facial expressions and, in animation, colours and shapes) is universal. If anything, dialogue would have destroyed the expressivity of carefully constructed animation. Belleville is a film that works strictly through character and in it character is constructed through well-defined particularities.

What's most interesting is that the character I liked best is the fat dog, Bruno. Mad about trains (he just can't abstain from barking at them), this lazy dog conceals a complicated and revealing psyche (his black and white nightmares are, really, uncanny projections of reality, once you shake off the grotesque first impression and start focusing on dream imagery as a symbol). He is also the most sympathetic character - to me, at least - since he is clearly the most used and abused (albeit lovingly). Throughout the film, I've often felt, in fact, that I was being pushed/discreetly guided into sharing Bruno's point of view. (Which must be why I felt that he was the most humane character, whilst everyone else was a bittersweet parody of humanity. Or maybe not.)

In any case, the film was excellent: exquisite soundtrack, exciting array of characters and amazing mixture of carricature, film noir, sugar, spice, everything nice and everything nasty too! There are a lot of unexpected twists that'll keep you swinging between ill-concealed sniggers and misty eyes. This is a definite must watch. (Don't take my word for it, though; go and see it, then you can judge for yourselves. :3)

Okay, I'll be off watching Chomet's La Vieille Dame et les Pigeons/ The Old Lady and the Pigeons now. I may let myself be tricked into reviewing that later.
Current Mood: okay
Current Music: Belleville Rendez-Vous Theme
My long-standing hobby of rescuing/collecting other people's memories has resurfaced again. It would have resurfaced before, only, to my shame, I was unable to find the usual place in our local market selling vintage photos&postcards. It's like the magic little shop that Terry Pratchett pokes so much fun at in his Discworld novels: it would seem to disappear for considerable stretches of time and then it hops back onto the map, just as dusty and forbidding as it ever was. So, then. Found it again. This time, I only purchased two photos and one postcard. I don't precisely know what was so special in them that made me buy them. To be honest, the photo/postcard batch this time seemed quite mediocre. Nevertheless, I couldn't leave empty-handed. It's simply impossible for me to leave without having bought at least one. So here they are (and once more apologies for my inexpert rephotographing):

Number one. Front of photograph:

Black and white with white borders. On it is written a name, in blue ink: Nellie Lovatt (I think, I'm not all that sure about the surname). I guess the priceless expression on the mother's face while she's holding her newborn baby compelled me to buy the photo. I just felt it would be unfair to let a "first memory" of this kind get lost or be destroyed. I also like the details, so appropriate for a casual family photo: the pacifier, only half visible in the mother's hand, the bottle on a shelf in the background (medicine? beverage? poison?) and the framed painting on the wall, so tantalising because it's there, and yet you can't make out what it shows (some sort of landscape, maybe?).

Back of photograph:

It is a photo postacrd, as it's printed on postcard back, "divided" type. On the "correspondence" half it says, in black pencil:
Dear K & E (?)
Snapped this in the front bedroom the first time that Nell was dressed, with the camera I bought off you. Not bad is it? Hope that both of you are OK. Your ma is a bit anxious @ not receiving a letter from you for some time
Your S. Y. Percy
(?) & Nell

On the "address" half it says, in black ink, perhaps as a memento: Born 9th Sept. 1924

The fact that all three texts - the baby's name, on the front of the photo postcard, the message and the birth date - are written in different colours, with different objects (pen, pencil) suggests that they have also been written at different times. Also, while the name on the front and message on the back seem to have been written in the same hand, the birth date is written in far more elegant handwriting, by somebody else. There's no address and no stamp, so either it was never sent by post, or it was enclosed in an envelope, with a longer letter, maybe. Clearly it has passed through several hands; it makes me sad that whoever had this failed to keep it. But then again, I'm happy it's mine now. :)

Number two.

Black and white with white borders. Photo postcard, unused/unsent. The only thing written on the back is 50p in black pencil, so it was probably sold and bought and sold before. I don't have much to say about it, except that the photographer's name and "address" are embossed on the lower right-hand corner of the photo: Joe Harman and REDDITCH underneath. I almost didn't see them at first, they're only visible if you hold the photo in a certain way in the light. I looked them up on-line, but I couldn't find anything. I assume the photo's been taken more or less in the same period as the other one, though I may be wrong, of course. As far as I'm concerned, I just loved the look on the baby's face, and how it waits so patiently (almost aware of what's happening) on the small sofa.

Number three. Front of postcard:

It shows a lady dressed in white, sitting on a bench in an idyllic park/garden and holding a book. Not too special in itself, though I have to admit I have a thing for vintage postcards showing girls with books. :P More interesting, though, is what's on the back.

Back of postcard:

It was stamped and posted. There's a green half penny postage stamp showing King George V. This has also been stamped with the place, time and date of dispatch (I believe it's dispatch and not receipt): Birmingham, 11:30 PM, April 10, 1913. In the "address" half, the receiver is revealed to be a Miss E Smith living at 14 Cradock Rd Saltley. Google Maps shows Saltley to be in Birmingham. It also shows that Cradock Road still exists. In fact, you can even see how 14 Cradock Rd, Saltley, Birmingham looks like today, on Street View (marked by the red bubble):

Finding this makes me consider going there and trying to track down the original owner of this postcard. It's probably much too much trouble. But it would be interesting, wouldn't it? Especially since the message is quite intriguing. It goes like this:

Which, as far as I was able to decipher the handwriting, would be:
Dear Eliza,
Just a line hoping you are in the Pink/Bink/???
You would laugh if you could see me. Dont forget to ask 'Tom's intention's for me as I am shy myself. see you on Saturday.
Yours Sincerely,
Fred xxxx

I don't know what anyone else thinks about this, but by the way it's written (hurriedly, I'd say) some exciting and secret affair must have been afoot. I wonder how it all ended. I sure hope 'Tom' proved to be a nice guy...

Well, then, this is it for now. Expect more eclectic stuff soon. ;)
Current Mood: content
05 June 2011 @ 03:30 pm
Since I ended up deleting one of my initial posts, explaining my id, "amphisbaina", I thought I might write a new and improved one, for anyone who might be interested. ^_^

Usually, when I confess to owning a blog and people ask for the URL, they get stuck at "amphisbaina". They give me that "what" face and I have to spell it out. Well, it's all my fault for having a penchant for the bizarre, even when it comes to website addresses and ids. Amphisbaina, a variant of "amphisbaena" (literally "going both ways" - for more linguistic insight, please see the small god of internet info, Wikipedia) would be something like this:

[images via BeastPedia, Worm Salad and Les Minimes]

The 1960's "The Book of Beasts", compiled by T.H. White, features the following regarding this double-headed monster: This is called an AMPHIVENA (Amphisbena) because it has two heads. One head is in the right place and the other is in its tail. With one head holding the other, it can bowl along in either direction like a hoop. This is the only snake which stands the cold well, and it is the first to come out of hibernation. Lucan writes of it: 'Rising on twin-born heads comes dangerous Amphisbaena/ And her eyes shine like lamps.' There is more in White's footnotes on the amphisbaena, but I'm not about to go all encyclopedic on you (despite this blog's title). And in any case, you can read all that stuff in your spare time directly from the source, here. There are several different descriptions of the beast, but it generally comes across as a two-headed reptilian creature, invariably deadly. Most interesting is that people like Pliny and Lucan who have taken the pains to add this little wonder to their catalogue might not have been all that far from the truth. A little-known, little-studied reptile, baptised amphisbaenia, after its conceptual ancestor of sorts, does indeed exist in parts of Africa and South America.

The reason why I picked an id taking on the name of this particular obscure mythological beast is my long-lasting fascination with all things and creatures going in doubles, as well as with serpents and snake-like beasts. So what better than the two-headed snake to base my online journal on? Granted, it is somewhat arbitrary, but it is, nevertheless, consistent with the nature of my blog: random oddities on display.
Current Mood: okay
I ended up purging quite a few of my older posts from 1-2 years ago. I guess this tends to happen when I'm about to leave a piece of my life behind: I prefer to erase all incriminating evidence. Well, the stuff I deleted was mostly debris anyway, so I don't suppose the on-line multiverse'll miss it.

Well, here I am then, finally able to update and - generally - take a break from all the complcations of dealing with life. I received my copy of The Weird Fiction Review - Number 1 in the post recently, and I'm over the moon about it (how come I didn't find out about this little gem sooner? shame on me!). I've only flicked through it so far, but it appears to be more than fascinating, so expect a review of the Review sometime soon. ;)

More interestingly, though, I've been to see Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec/ The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a most delighful movie from director Luc Besson, based on the comic books of Jacques Tardi, which I have not, however, had the pleasure to read. Here's my preferred trailer (French and no subtitles, I'm afraid):

Again, I can't really compare the film to the original comics, since I haven't read them, but then again, I doubt that would be fair play anyway. As far as my amateurish opinion goes, it was a gorgeous, baroque feast of doubles and doubleness - from twins to arch-enemies to the timeless life/death motif - all wrought together in a string of absurd and savoury adventures. The plot is set in pre-WWI Paris (mostly) and Egypt (or the stereotypically-spooky entrails of an Egyptian pyramid, to be more precise). The main character, Adèle Blanc-Sec (played by Louise Bourgoin) is a tomboyish (for lack of a better attribute) young journalist/novelist/adventurer looking for a three-millennia-old mummy whose knowledge would enable it to cure Adèle's twin sister, Agathe (and I will not spoil for you what it is that Agathe needs to be cured of, but a word of caution for the faint of heart: it's a gruesome little detail). As main characters go, Adèle is quite remarkable through her unbreacheable loyalty to gimendous hats and the cool indifference she exhibits towards sneezing mummies and pterodactyls with a taste for ostrich feather shawls. Her reactions are sometimes predictable perhaps, typical of the "reckless adventuress", but in 97% of the cases, Adèle is simply charming (and I'm afraid I've also taken a dangerous liking to her "museum of curiosities" bedecked flat).

The plot I found well-balanced and tantaizing, combining a decent percentage of supernatural, absurd, humour and drama. From scientists with telekinetic abilities, to Jurassic birds in the middle of Paris, to mummies with a unique sense of aesthetics - "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec" has it all. But the best part about it is its "film noir" streak, in which no joke is left without a shady or tragic twist. For every life saved there is a life tragically lost or at least placed under severe threat. I would love to expand on this, but I don't really want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't watched it yet. I leave you with a lovely pic of sisters Adèle and Agathe in the foremath of a truly decisive tennis match:

Current Mood: okay
30 April 2011 @ 10:51 pm
One of the most amazing, surreal things things happened today, when I was visiting the Holy Trinity Church graveyard in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was busy taking a photograph of a beautiful Victorian tombstone, when a little boy (probably aged somehwere between 4 and 6) ran to a tombstone nearby, kneeled in front of it, then started to kind of 'shake' the thing and yell at it, saying: 'Wake up, dude! Why don't you wake up? Don't you know you're supposed to wake up one day? Why don't you wake up now? Wake up!' Then he started to brush away with his little fingers the dirt and soil deposited on the tombstone over the years. He kept at it until his parents - who weren't really paying attention to what the kid was doing - called him away. And even then he kept looking back.

I just thought this was extremely fascinating, and I had to share it with the world. And now, I'll just pop my last NaPoWriMo poem. Which is also - appropriately enough, methinks - kind of 'final' in theme and tone.

Too Late, too Early
by Kalyiel

Out of the mist, you held out your hand,
Reached to me, beckoned me to follow.
So I followed, followed to the bottom
Of each glass of wine, where blue pearls
Grow on shrivelled lambskin scrolls.
I followed to the peak of the sky,
Where angels still fight for the love of God.
I followed to the Gardens of Hell,
Where mad or intoxicated painters
Transmute their hands into paintbrushes
And draw flame circles around themselves.
I followed you home. But I stopped
In front of your door and there
I let you go. I let you go, although
Your hand, from the mist, was still
Beckoning. 'Farewell,' I said, 'I've walked
You home, but now it's getting late.
I can't stay overnight. But I promise,
I promise I'll see you in the morning.'
Current Mood: thoughtful
29 April 2011 @ 10:46 pm
Getting serious again in the penultimate day of NaPoWriMo. For some reason, I've written about shadows again.

[screencap from this video, via]

Shadow Baby
by Kalyiel

Lately I've been able to hear shadows
Moving stealthily with these, our bodies,
The sound of their airy shackles as they
Trudge between flesh and soul, moaning
Miserably on the floors, walls, pavements,
Trailing off blindly, ape-like, neither
Here nor there, neither alive nor dead.
At first, I thought I was just imagining
Everything, but then I felt I could hear
These sounds closer and closer. So I looked
Behind me and there it was, my own shadow
Crying like an infant, flickering with
Rustling noises. I bent down and picked
It up, nursed it with loving-care, fed it
Milk and apples and bread and butter and jam.
Now it's getting clearer, much clearer,
I think it has put on some weight.
I can almost discern its face and I think
It looks nothing like me. It probably
Takes after the world.

Good, that's that, now for some random trivia. After writing the poem, I googled "shadow baby" out of curiosity, and I found out that there's actually a whole novel by Margaret Forster called just that, "Shadow Baby". Evie and Shona, born almost 70 years apart, are women of very different personalities. But as their stories unfold, it becomes apparent that they share much more than their yearning to find the mothers they never knew. - the Amazon UK description says. Also, there is a series of seven books called Shadow Children, a dystopia in which any third child born to family has to be killed. Well, isn't that something?
Current Mood: okay
Current Music: Erik Satie - "Nocturne No. 1"