Monday, June 17, 2013

Spinster Travelogue: Sleepy Hollow

This weekend I took a spur-of-the-moment visit up to Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Incredibly, I'd never been before -- which, for a Washington Irving fan and ghost tour guide, is somewhat shocking. I was so excited to finally, finally see Tarrytown (!) that, on the train, I clutched my ticket like a child until the Metro-North conductor looked and me and kindly inquired if I got out of the city much.
Other than one minor disappointment (there was no lantern-light cemetery tour offered on Saturday night; I soothed my sorrow at a nearby tavern), the trip was awesome.
Old Dutch Church
The Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow
Hymns were wafting out of the Old Dutch Church when I arrived at ten o'clock on Sunday morning. The church itself is beautiful; you can easily imagine the secrets and sights absorbed into its worn stones.
Dutch Church Sign
A grammatically baffling yet nonetheless soul-stirring sign.
Afraid of disrupting the service, I was too timid to actually go inside the church. But the adjacent burial ground was rich enough with delights.
Dutch Grave 1769
"Here Lied Begraven"
I'm pretty sure the first three words carved onto this stone are "Here Lied Begraven." The text is in Dutch, which is thrilling enough (they spell Jesus with Z!) but I have to say the word "begraven" is kind of amazing. I'd like to start using this word all the time. I'm fairly sure the grave belongs to a woman ("huisvrouw," if I've been reading my Knickerbocker correctly, means "housewife" or "wife") but the only name that appears is that of a man (John Emers). Is it possible this goodly vrouw is identified only by her husband's name? Dutch people, help me out on this one. The good woman died in 1769, and her headstone is wonderfully representative of the preferred colonial style: its shoulder arches and tympanum are classic colonial, and the winged death's-head reflects the cheerier, more cherubic design used at the time, which supplanted the grim, skeletal carvings preferred in the earlier part of the century. A lovely headstone.
Irving Grave
Washington Irving's Grave
A few steps away, I found the grave of our man himself: Washington Irving. I paused before it to pay my respects to the legacy of the first genius of American letters, and left a rock atop it. Irving wrote a number of wonderful spectral tales in addition to the two everybody knows, as well as history, biography and satire, plus he pretty much single-handedly saved Christmas. And, he was a marketing genius. Prior to publishing his History of New-York, which he released under the pseudonym "Diedrich Knickerbocker," Irving plastered New York City with posters declaiming the august historian Knickerbocker "missing," and asking all citizens to come forward with any news of him, should they find him. Irving even took out ad space in various newspapers. Naturally, the city was astir with curiosity, and when "Knickerbocker's" book finally came out a few weeks later, New Yorkers beat down the doors to get their hands on a copy. A bestseller was born, and Washington Irving accidentally invented viral marketing two centuries before such a thing existed.
Headless Horseman Bridge
Headless Horseman Bridge
But of course Irving's masterwork was his Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and as thrilled as I was to find the author's grave, I have to admit the biggest frisson of the day came when we drove over the bridge supposedly referenced in the story. The bridge is just outside the churchyard gates, and on the day we visited, two volunteers had set up merchandise tables there. As I seriously pondered buying a pewter Headless Horseman Christmas tree ornament, the older gentleman volunteer began speaking passionately about how much he loved the churchyard, and Irving, and the stories. He quoted some lines from Sleepy Hollow to us:
An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. The wavering reflection of a silver star in the bosom of the brook told him that he was not mistaken... “If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.”
He looked at us intently and said, "That line always makes my hair stand up."
Restored Bridge
A re-creation of the bridge, inside Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
It was amazing. This guy was an even bigger Washington Irving fan than I was. I thanked him warmly and, brimming with inspiration, set off to visit Sunnyside.
Sunnyside was designed by Irving himself, and the cottage reflects the writer's expansive and wide-ranging interests. It has all the architectural cohesion of a minor explosion, and is curiously charming.
Irving of course had to throw in a few inauthentic faux-Dutch touches, like this date, affixed to the western wall of the cottage:
This house was actually built in the 1840s.
This house was actually built in the 1830s.
The funny thing is, no one is really sure what the "1656" refers to. Obviously it doesn't reflect the date Sunnyside was built, since Irving bought the land in 1835. Nor does it refer to the original tenant farmer's cottage that was previously on the site (it was built in the 1690s). I asked the guide and he surmised Irving just wanted to add an old-timey touch to the place. It seems the great writer left us one last mystery. Or, knowing the author's whimsical sense of humor, one last joke.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Terry McGarry to read M.R. James and Heads Will Explode

Mainly, my head.

Next week I will be co-hosting Ghost Stories for the Weary Urbanite, a fun show with a poncey title that will feature one new and one classic ghost story. The new story will come courtesy of Jack Ketchum, and the classic story will be read by the lovely Terry McGarry.

Here's where the head-exploding part comes in: this stellar SF author will be reading one of my favorite ghost stories of all time: Lost Hearts, by M.R. James.

My love for M.R. James is a tired old subject I won't bang on about any more, but let me just say for the record that this is a very thrilling announcement for me to make.

If you haven't read it yet -- don't! Come out on Wednesday April 3rd to hear Terry read it to you! Unless you live nowhere near New York City, in which case I'd recommend the next best thing: the M.R. James Podcast to the Curious. Or, you can do it the old fashioned way.

Hope to see those of you who can make it at this event. We plan to make it an ongoing thing, and the thought of contemporary horror authors gathering 'round to read the classic tales that inspired them, well, it makes me glow like some sort of very hot glowy thing.



Monday, March 25, 2013

Ghost Stories for the Weary Urbanite

Ghost Stories Flyer Text Only

Next Wednesday, April 3rd, I’ll be co-hosting (along with Gordon Linzner) a night of readings of classical and contemporary ghost stories, with special guests Jack Ketchum and Terry McGarry. Ketchum and McGarry are renowned horror/SF writers, and this is an amazing chance to see them together! So, to paraphrase Lord Dunsany, come with me ladies and gentlemen who are in any wise weary of New York,  “Come with me, and those that tire at all of the world we know: for we have new worlds here.”

Readings will take place at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art. Doors open 6:30pm. $5 donation requested. For more information, check out our Facebook page.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Brooklyn Ghosts: Cobble Hill

Found this great post over at the Bowery Boys, telling a Brooklyn ghost story I’d never heard before. And it’s thoroughly awesome.

According to Henry Reed Stiles’ 1869 history of Brooklyn, the following event transpired one night in the 1820s, in a rowdy little tavern on Red Hook Lane:

“One evening at around 11 p.m., the men at the converted tavern discovered they had run out of brandy.  To replenish their supply, somebody needed only to run down Red Hook Lane to the Brooklyn ferry and retrieve more. 

Less than a half-mile walk, of course, but one that passed by an old ruined fort (Cobbleshill Fort), approximately near the intersection of today’s Court and Pacific streets.  Sitting near to the fort was “a ghost-haunted spot,” a frightening, decrepit place well-known to locals, ‘about which dreadful stories are whispered, which lent wings to the feet of such unwary village urchins as chanced to pass it after dark.’

Nobody wanted to admit they were frightened to venture out alone, and yet despite their incredible thirst, nobody volunteered for the task.  Finally, a man named Boerum, thirsty and bold, declared he would head to the ferry and retrieve the brandy.”

Two hours later, when Boerum still had not returned, his friends ventured forth into the night, all a-tremble with terror and trepidation:

“Mounting, not in hot haste, they turned their horses’ heads towards the village and on approaching the haunted ground, they found Boerum’s horse standing against the fence not far from the house, and when they reach the spot itself, their companion was discovered lying senseless on the road, with features horribly distorted.”

Boerum died a few days later, still speechless, and to this day nobody knows how he perished. Did he see the ghost and die of fright? Or did he come across something still more sinister?
We cannot say. But you can still visit Red Hook Lane, a tiny alley in Cobble Hill, just off Fulton Street, and see if the spirits will tell you anything.

Read the rest of the Bowery Boys blog post here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Well, this is a whole lotta crap: Detox Diary

I recently decided to go on a beer detox, just to see what would happen. Part of me was simply experimenting, setting a pointless challenge for myself, which is a thing I do sometimes for some reason. Another part of me realized that the heroic amounts of beer I consume on a regular basis might make me an educated consumer, passionate beer enthusiast, and generally happy and satisfied person, but it was also making my tummy start to hurt. Now, I'm no scientician. I'm not even sure where in the human body the liver is located. But I knew that my liver was politely asking me for a little break.

And so I decided it was time for the Homer Challenge: No Deer For A Month.

Naturally I assumed that everything about my mind and body would immediately become awesome right away. I'd bound out bed in the mornings, a monster of clarity, efficiently performing tasks and activities with ease and grace. I'd remember things like names and faces, my IQ would jump ten points, I'd drop a ton of weight without trying, and my skin would look fresh and hydrated!


Here's what's really happening:

1. Cognitive function not improved

By any measurable standards, I'm just as dumb as I was a week ago. I have signed up for Lumosity, so I'll be tracking this on a quantifiable level. But, anecdotally, I can say I'm not finding it any easier to learn or retain new information, nor am I finding my reaction time, speed, attention, or any other function significantly improved. In fact, due to the extreme stress of staying sober, I am actually doing worse at certain activities. Case Study #1: Total crap at pub quiz last night. My hypothesis? When you're relaxed, you perform better at everything. When you're drinking soda water with lime, you are not relaxed, therefore you arse up the pub quiz and forget things like the fact that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite.

Beer: 1
Temperance: 0

2. Still fat

Actually, I'm exercising less now than I did when I enjoyed a beer or two with dinner. Back then (a whole long week ago!) I'd try so hard to exercise those calories away that I'd end up doing lots of cardio. These days... meh.

Beer: 1
Temperance: 0


Man, am I irritable! I want to slap everyone I see. I'm constantly twitchy, impatient, and annoyed. Everyone's enjoying themselves but me! I even got into a fight at the aforementioned pub last night over a question on the quiz. I was right, and no one else could see that except me! Because everyone is drunk and stupid and doesn't care about the really important things like FACTS and RULES! God damn it!

Beer: 1
Temperance: 0

4. Insomnia!

Fact, hops make you sleep. A nice IPA in the evening was just the thing to cure my insomnia. I slept the sleep of the just. These days I toss and turn until three in the morning. Ironically, sleep deprivation results in the cognitive equivalent of consuming three to four drinks, so therefore this morning I am about as alert and refreshed as a very hung over person. It's all punishment, no fun, up here in the big ole sober house.

Beer: 1
Temperance: 0

In conclusion, this is bullshit.*

However, I'm determined to stick it out for the full month and, who knows, maybe everything will become amazing in, like, a week or so. But I'm pretty much ready to conclude at this point that beer really is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy (I know Benjamin Franklin didn't actually say that, but who cares, because facts are totally fungible and open to interpretation, according to the stupid moron who runs the stupid trivia pub quiz) and that teetotaling is for the weak.

The one good thing I have to say about all this is I think it's making me a better taster. I did have some Fruet this weekend, because when someone opens a bottle of that shit, all bets are off, and I think I was more sensitized and attuned to flavor nuances after my brief drinking break. In three weeks, when I return rested and refreshed from my beer exile, I think I'll notice and taste things in ways I never picked up on before. All of which will make me a better drinker... so nothing is wasted, really. So to speak.

* Just want to go on record and say that I intend this all from a personal standpoint, and of course if you have an actual substance abuse problem then Beer = minus a million points and Temperance = plus one billion. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mama (2013) Mini-review

In the midst of January's cinematic dumping-ground comes a solid and well-crafted ghost story, marred only by a few strange aesthetic choices: Mama (2013). Exec produced by Guillermo del Toro, the film was based on Barbara Muschietti 's 2008 Spanish language horror film of the same name in a bit of a dream-come-true scenario ("Hey, del Toro likes your short and wants to finance a feature. Sound cool to you?"). It's a satisfying film overall but with a few flaws that marred the final product.

The set up is fundamentally brilliant: two little girls, aged three and one, are abandoned by their psychotic father in a cabin in the woods. Their daddy's gone crazy and killed their mother, and he's about to shoot the oldest girl when a mysterious, ghostly entity snatches him up, takes him away, and saves the children. The two girls grow up feral and alone, watched over only by the ghostly presence who they call "Mama." When their uncle finally finds them five years later, the older girl is willing to become part of the society of the living, but the younger daughter, who never really learned to speak and is far more savage than her sister, remains attached to her death-mommy. If you happen to be a Freudian, you'll find their ages quite significant. But even if you're not, the dark fairy-tale evocations of the cabin in the woods, mixed in with some of horror's most effective, if well-worn, tropes (the uncanny child, gruesome motherhood) combine to create one unsettling experience.

While the story, lead performances and characterization, are all great, the ghost itself was a bit problematic for me. The apparition was just so badly rendered, the worst of the worst CGI. In the course of the film, certain photographs are used to illustrate Mama's origin story; these look a bit like Victorian spirit photos or death portraits, and are far scarier than the final CGI specter. Visually, a little less-is-more might've saved that ghost. 

Otherwise, Mama was a solid film, with a surprisingly -- and refreshingly -- bleak ending. It was certainly effective enough to give me nightmares: I awoke at 3am with a vague sense of terror over the idea of two little children lost in the woods, but not alone.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Poe Tour This Weekend

Join me this Saturday January 19th to celebrate Edgar Allan Poe’s 204th “birthday” with a walking tour of Greenwich Village. I’m running two tours, one at 2:30pm and one at 7:30pm. Tours are 90 minutes long, and you can buy tickets here.

Poe belongs to New York. He was a literatus, not a loner, and New York has long been the home of the literati. Greenwich Village was his hometown. In this walk, we will take the opportunity to explore biographical, literary, and supernatural details of his life, how Greenwich Village influenced him, and how he saw Greenwich Village.

Meeting Point: 85 West Third Street, one block south of Washington Square Park between Thompson and Sullivan Streets, in Manhattan. Subway trains A B C D E F M stop at the West 4th Street Station.

Tour covers approximately one mile. Please wear comfortable shoes and dress warmly!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Poe in New York City, 1837 - 1838 (Pt. 2)

​This is the second half of a guest post written by Lisa Lideks, who runs the blog The World of Edgar Allan Poe. An authority on Poe who is devoted to separating truth and fiction, Ms. Lideks gives us the lowdown on some of his lesser-known years in Gotham. Last we heard, he was living with his wife and mother-in-law/aunt in Greenwich Village and struggling to make ends meet as a writer. Did he succeed? Find out, below!
Maria Clemm

Virginia Poe

For eight months, the Poe family shared their lodgings with William Gowans, an eccentric, though kindly, bookseller.  In 1870, Gowans published a brief, charming reminiscence of the Poe household that gives the fullest information we have of this period in the poet’s life.  Gowans spent a good deal of his account extolling Virginia Poe’s “matchless beauty and loveliness,” as well as her “temper and disposition of surpassing sweetness.”  (In a revealing comment about the Poe marriage, he added that she was as devoted to her husband “as a young mother is to her first born.”)

As for Poe himself, Gowans never saw the poet intoxicated, or guilty of any other vice, and that he “was one of the most courteous, gentlemanly, and intelligent companions I have met.”  Gowans noted that “The characters drawn of Poe by his various biographers and critics may with safety be pronounced an excess of exaggeration, but this is not to be much wondered at, when it is taken into consideration that these men were rivals either as poets or prose writers, and it is well that such are generally as jealous of each other as are the ladies who are handsome, or those who desire to be considered possessed of the coveted quality.”

Gowans commented that during this period Poe was completing “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.”  This would prove to be the most significant achievement of Poe’s early New York stay.  Harper & Brothers took out a copyright on the novel in June of 1837, but it was not published until a year later.  (This unexplained delay was probably related to the bleak financial times.)

Another short glimpse of Poe in 1830s New York comes from his attendance at the Booksellers Dinner held at the City Hotel in March 1837, an event which drew many of the major literary figures of the time. The newspapers of the time record him as offering a brief toast:  “The Monthlies of Gotham—Their distinguished Editors, and their vigorous Collaborateurs.”

Sometime in the early spring of 1837, the Poe household moved to 113 ½ Carmine Street.  St. John’s graveyard was nearby, and it is said that Poe and his wife enjoyed walks through the tree-lined quiet of the cemetery.  During this period, Poe published a review of John L. Stephens’ “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land” in the October “New York Review.”  “American Monthly Magazine” carried “Von Jung, the Mystic” in their June issue. “Siope—a Fable” appeared in the “Baltimore Book” for 1838.

There is no record of Poe publishing anything else during this time, although it is possible he did some sort of literary hack work that appeared anonymously.  It is a mystery how he and his family survived.  There are practically no letters to or from him during this period, and mentions of him in the contemporary correspondence of others are equally lacking.  As far as history records, during Poe’s first New York stay he may as well have been on the dark side of the moon.

There is a very curious footnote to his year in the city.  In June 1846, Thomas Dunn English, with whom Poe was carrying on the noisiest of public feuds, published a column where he made an offhand reference that “the ‘Tombs,’ of New York, has probably a dim remembrance of [Poe’s] person.”

English did not elaborate on this startling charge, and Poe made no known response to this allegation that he did a stint in a New York prison.  It has been equally ignored by his biographers.  English generally had a strained relationship with the truth, particularly where Poe was concerned, so it is quite possible that he simply engaged in a bit of libelous exaggeration.  Is it possible, however, that during Poe’s first stay in New York City, he was briefly imprisoned—perhaps for debt?  Could that help explain the lack of information during that part of his history?  No one knows.

In any case, it is sadly certain that Poe’s early attempt to make his fortune in Gotham was a harrowing experience.  Sometime in the early part of 1838, he gave up on the Big Apple and moved his little family to Philadelphia.  In July of that year, he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy asking for some sort of government work.  It is a letter of pure despair:  “Could I obtain the most unimportant Clerkship in your gift—any thing, by sea or land—to relieve me from the miserable life of literary drudgery to which I now, with a breaking heart, submit…I would never again repine at any dispensation of God.”

Unfortunately, whether he lived in New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, or Baltimore, Poe was always given many reasons for repining.

Loved this post? Can't get enough of Poe in New York City? Why, it just so happens I'm leading a walking tour of Greenwich Village on January 19th to honor that very thing! If you're in NYC and interested in taking tour, please email me for tickets and info. 

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Poe In New York City, 1837 - 1838 (Pt. 1)

​The following is the first half of a guest post written by Lisa Lideks, who runs the blog The World of Edgar Allan Poe. An authority on Poe who is devoted to separating truth and fiction, Ms. Lideks gives us the lowdown on some of his lesser-known years in Gotham. Check back tomorrow for the second half of this post. 

Poe spent the last five years of his life living in the New York City area, and this period is the most important and well-known of his life.  “The Raven” was published.  He acquired (and lost) the “Broadway Journal,” which proved to be his one opportunity to run his own literary magazine.  He became embroiled in social and professional scandals that haunt his reputation to this day.  His wife Virginia died.  He wrote his magnum opus, “Eureka.”  Finally, in October of 1849, a New York paper, Horace Greeley’s “Daily Tribune,” commissioned Rufus W. Griswold to write what would prove to be one of history’s most infamous obituaries.

In contrast, his earlier sojourn in New York City, from 1837-38, is the most poorly-documented year of his adult life, and goes largely ignored.  “The Poe Log,” that painstaking documentary record, took over 350 pages to cover his years in New York from 1844-49.  By contrast, this same book summarized his first residence in that city in just four pages.  Still, that period is not without its own significance, if only as grim tribute to the peculiarly star-crossed nature of Poe’s career.

In January 1837, Poe officially “retired” as editor of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” a monthly based in Richmond, Virginia.  The magazine’s proprietor Thomas W. White fired Poe ostensibly for his occasional lapses in sobriety, but the dismissal largely came about through the fractious professional relations between the two men.  White resented Poe’s attempts to gain editorial control over the magazine, not to mention his increasingly obvious disdain for his employer.  Late in December 1836, White grumbled to his confidante Beverley Tucker:  “I am cramped by [Poe] in the exercise of my own judgment, as to what articles I shall or shall not admit into my work. It is true that I neither have his sagacity, nor his learning--but I do believe I know a handspike from a saw. Be that as it may, however,--and let me even be a jackass, as I dare say I am in his estimation, I will again throw myself on my own resources…”

A man may be as sober as ten thousand angels, but if his boss catches on that this employee thinks of him as a jackass, it’s safe to say said employee’s days on the job are numbered.

Poe was equally ready to leave a job he had come to see as confining, particularly as he had far more congenial employment in view.  Early in 1837, Francis Lister Hawks, who was about to launch the “New York Review,” asked Poe to join his journal:  “I wish you to fall in with your broad-axe amidst this miserable literary trash which surrounds us.  I believe you have the will, and I know well you have the ability.”

Poe most certainly had both.  By early February, he, his fourteen year old bride of less than a year, and his aunt/mother-in-law Maria Clemm arrived in New York City to start what they undoubtedly assumed was a prosperous new life.  They settled in at a residence at Sixth Avenue and Waverley Place.  Unfortunately, as was generally the case with Poe, “unmerciful Disaster followed fast and followed faster.”  His move to New York coincided neatly with the “Panic of 1837,” which launched one of the biggest financial depressions in American history.  The “New York Review,” along with many other publications, struggled only to soon sink without a trace.  The entire literary industry was crippled by the nationwide economic collapse.  It was the worst possible time for a young writer, however gifted, to build a career...

​What will happen to young Edgar? Will he triumph? Or will his dreams be shattered? Find out tomorrow!