Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Short spookies, the musical.

Hello S&P'ers!

It's been a little while since our last outing, but now I'm back, hanging out here at the little boneyard behind the Skull & Pumpkin.

Yes it's chilly, but we'll have a nice bonfire soon... and some singing.

See, after our mini-ghost-story campfire in my last post, Her Majesty The Frog Queen informed me of her love of ghostly stories and ghostly music; and she mentioned two long-celebrated, nearly ancient folk songs from the ever-ghostly British Isles.

    "... Every time that I travel to the UK these two songs come to mind -- John Barleycorn (Must Die) by (Robert) Burns and The Unquiet Grave (traditional)..."

I entirely agree with her song choices and thought instead of my merely telling you about them, we'd listen to them together. They are tracks 8 and 9 on the player to your right.

Now, she mentioned her favorite recordings of these songs (by Robin Laing) but I could not locate them to post here (and I look forward to hearing them one day). The versions I have added to the ol' Hallowe'en Jukebox are versions I have enjoyed many times over the years.

The first is the (nearly) timeless John Barleycorn. The song is at least as old as the 15th century, and has been revised, revived and recorded by so many artists over the years that it would be silly to try to recount it for you (the most famous likely being Traffic's 'John Barleycorn Must Die', the title track from the 1970 album of the same name). This version predates that one and doubtless inspired it -- Mike Waterson, of The Watersons, singing a capella on the 1965 album Frost & Fire.

The song details the sufferings and spirit of the titular Barleycorn, who is merely a symbol of the grains and goodies that go into making our favorite potables, and how Barleycorn is beaten into giving up its spirits for us.
That's an oversimplification, but it's about right. An air of mystery was provided the legend by the immortal Robert Burns in 1782, who removed some of its more mundane trappings and added, with his usual flair, a more ghostly atmosphere. Waterson's voice is the sonic twin of Burns' style.

The other folk song is another old, much-revised and recorded chestnut.

The Unquiet Grave is thought to be at least as old as the late 14th century. There are literally hundreds of variations on its theme, which is that the grief of the mourner can cause the dead unrest, and make the dead return in ghostly form to quiet the mourner, often by setting them to solving riddles or performing impossible tasks; in this way, the mourner is convinced of the uselessness of over-grieving, and reminded that they will, in their turn, join the mourned soon enough.

Here, Luke Kelly of the world-famous Dubliners heads up a very pretty mid-1970s version of the tale. There are darker arrangements in minor keys, but this one feels good to me too.

Nothing like a few spooky, spirited tunes to give life to the ol' boneyard bonfire...

Enjoy the music and the warmth.

Thank you good Frog Queen for the comment, putting the idea in my head to have this little outing!

So... anyone else have any tunes or tales to share? Winter is the best time to lay in a store of good tales and tastes for we Autumn folk.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Short spookies.


Come in, come in.

Good gravy it's freezing out there! No snow or ice but the wind is getting a little persistent and our bones need a bit of warmth.

Reminds me of when we'd sit around the late evening Autumn campfire...

You know, I'm not great at remembering the classic, drawn out, legendary ghost tales. I mean, I remember them, oh yes I do, and can in seconds be brought right back to my very young, impressionable, shivering self when I recall many of them...

The Golden Arm.

Johnny, Give Me Back My Liver.

Thump-Thump-Drag (ooh, that one did me in!).

But I cannot remember how to tell them just so. I do most of my spooky storytelling with imagery, puppetry, set design, music.

However, it is very easy to remember the three shortest ghost tales I have ever heard.

Gather 'round... it will only take a second.


Two strangers met on the road, laughing at their chance meeting in the nighttime solitude.
"It's a good thing I don't believe in ghosts," laughed the first.
"You don't?" said the other as he vanished.


The very last person in the whole world sat alone in the dark house.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door.


I awoke in darkness, wishing for a match. Then a match was put into my hand.

And lastly...


See? I told you it would be brief.

Anyone have any good short ghostly tales to share? I'll post 'em up for all (maybe with a few embellishments and pictures, of course!) and we can roast some marshmallows, sip some cider or cocoa.

OH! What's that noise?


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Making an impression.

My first question is, why did anyone start doing this?

My second question is, why did anyone stop?


Monday, January 10, 2011

What's that up there? (part four)

Welcome, welcome.

I know it's been a bit quiet around here.

Been taking care of the Keek all week. A pure pleasure, and completely exhausting!

There have been a few additions to the Hallowe'enly decor around the ol' S&P, and I think I should point out these two.

An advertisement for Edison's revolutionary (get it?) phonograph. 
Plus Hallowe'en. Too neat.

And then there's this gift from a friend:

Incredible imagery! Sheet music for a 1922 novelty tune by Nacio Herb Brown.

Brown was a legendary songwriter who composed (wholly and in collaboration) some very well-known tunes -- Singin' in the Rain, All I Do is Dream of You, Broadway Melody, You Stepped Out of a Dream, Make 'Em Laugh, Broadway Rhythm, You Are My Lucky Star -- and many, many others.

Perhaps I am overimpressed, but this is just an astonishing image to me. From the bizarre title graphic to the whatever-the-heck-it-is just below the li'l devil guy (I'm guessing, oh, The Sneak?!?), to the color choices, to the single eye in the tree... it's just a beaut!

Just a few looks at some neat things acquired since I last posted.

They are now, of course, a permanent part of the Skull & Pumpkin.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The night that changed my life.

Well, one of the many nights that changed my life.

And one of the most memorable.

Recall that picture of the L.A. Dodgers baseball-shaped AM radio?

Here's the story I promised in that post.

No, I didn't come close to death and then suddenly pull away from The Light and breathe again with a new outlook on life, a new tenderness toward my fellow man.

I was not visited by three Ghosts.

Well... sort of.


If I may quote Sophia Petrillo:

'Picture it -- Las Vegas, October, 1975 -- and Hallowe'en was in the air!'

Mom had just finished a two week run of performances with her sisters and Andy Williams, as they did many times a year in those days.

We were packing up, getting ready to drive back home to the San Fernando Valley... and man! did my arm itch!

I kept digging at it, and by the time we were halfway to Barstow and my chest and neck were searing and itchy, my mother had officially diagnosed me:

Chicken pox. 

I was just seven years old.

Oh, it wasn't the itching that was bothering me. Not as bad as I probably made it seem, anyway.

No, what was terrible was that I had just come down with it and knew it meant at least two weeks of fevery, irritated, Calamine-soaked convalescence... and Hallowe'en was only a week away.

Yes, friends. Your humble pubkeep was going to MISS OUT ON HALLOWE'EN.

Me, the Monster Hallowe'en Lovin'est Kid of the Ages, was going to be sick for Hallowe'en.

I was a seven-year-old questioning the fairness and even the existence of a God who would let such a monstrous thing come to pass. I was mad, and surly, and itchy and ill, and put out in the way only a truly bent out of shape child can be.

For the next week, things were not pretty.

Well... okay, it wasn't really that bad. Fact is, I was honestly too sick for a few days to even care -- the itching was still terrible but the novelty of it had worn off in bleeding sores and it was the fever that was making me so sick. I couldn't do much more than groan and drink fluids and sleep.

So I wasn't really up to acting up.

But once the worst of it was over, the realization returned -- no Hallowe'en.

Now, you've read the posts about my Grandmother's house, right? So you know what it meant for me to be there on the 31st, and what it meant to know I wasn't going to be. 

I was dead inside.

Well, odd as it may seem, even in the face of The Great Disappointment I could not stay entirely miserable.

Sure, tagging along with my mom as we drove my brothers to Gramma's house was probably a lousy idea; the drive back was indeed miserable. My older sister Julie stayed with us, rather than go to Gram's, which seemed like a kind thing to do for me but I was baffled that she'd choose to miss out.

My baby sisters were far too little for any of it.

Still, it wasn't all bad.

For one thing, I got to dress up, sort of. Mom let me slick my hair back, and use one of my blankets as a cape, and put in some good ol' vampire teeth. You know the kind...
Mine didn't glow in the dark but this picture looked better than the others.

Another questionable move that at first seemed like a good idea was helping hand out treats (with a vampiric laugh or two) to neighborhood kids. Not that I was really contagious anymore -- it was the ten minutes it took to realize I was missing out on the Big Night that burned me. By the dozenth knock and shout of "Trick or treeaat!" I was a broken man.

My fever had returned, my itchiness inflamed, my face was hot with tears, and it was only 6:30 pm. 

Would the torment go on forever?

"Alright," said Mom. "You're miserable. Hot bath time."

The last time I visited that house, I couldn't help but notice how tiny the bathtub was. Back when I was seven and despairing, it seemed enormous, cold, clinical, deep and intimidating.

But at least I was finally letting it all out. I was crying, itching, soaking, and just plain sad.

"It's not fair," I'd repeat. "I like Hallowe'en more than anybody! It's not fair!"

But my mom was... well, my mom. Mom had (and still has) a talent for putting certain things in perspective in a way that sneaks up and makes sense. While I could still hear knocks and laughs and neighborhood fun beyond the bathroom window, I listened to her, and while I may not recall all of the wording precisely, I will never forget the message she conveyed.

"You know, Mike, of all my kids you do love the monsters and the spooky things the most, I don't know why. All of you kids do but you most. I know you think you're missing out. But listen to the kids outside --"

I did.

" -- and tell me you'd rather be outside with them."

"No," I admitted, "I don't really want to be with them, I just want to be at Gram's house putting on the show."

"Exactly. You're not sad because you're not out trick-or-treating, you're sad because you think you've missed out on the part you love most -- dressing up and putting on the show. Well, you got to dress up at least."

I had to agree.

"And you got to put on a show of your own."

"Well, not really. I mean they all knew it was me talking scary and everything."

"Yes but it's still your show, right? Even being sick couldn't keep you from getting into some kind of fun for some length of time."

I soaked, listened.

"You know, you can have Hallowe'en everyday if you want. As far as I'm concerned that's what you do most of the year anyway, with your toys and models and books and everything. You can choose to feel this all the year round. And no sickness can take it away. Now rinse up and let's watch some specials on TV or something."

After I got into my pj's, Mom and Dad made us all some popcorn, and with the remainder of the Hallowe'en candy, we sat down to watch a made-for-TV movie called The Night That Panicked America, a docudrama about Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds radiocast of 1938. I had never heard anything about this historic event, and found myself truly enthralled with the idea, the technology, the pure gas of scaring millions of people at once with a microphone, a sound effects table, and a good spooky tale.

I watched the entire film completely entranced, and at some point I became aware that I was, in effect, going behind the scenes to put on the show for Hallowe'en; that I was a part of the display, the magic of the scare and the fun, and I was in on the knowledge of how to do it.

This was a revelation. From here on out, I was going to be in on the haunting, even if I had to build it myself.

By the time the cast had realized it was just a radio play, I was curious.

"Dad? You were born when?"

"Nineteen and Twenty Four."

"And this was on the radio in 1938?"

"Yessir," he nodded, knowing exactly where I was going with it.

"So did you hear it?"

Dad smiled, put down his crossword and lit another cigarette. "Well, it wasn't on the 31st like the movie says; it was actually done the night before Hallowe'en. I was almost 14 years old and spending the night at a pal's house a few blocks from where your grandparents and I lived in Indiana..."

As he told me his own tale of this until-tonight-never-even-heard-of epic event, I began to realize with great pride that I was somehow connected, however tenuously, to one of the best Hallowe'en pranks ever pulled, and even my Dad, the master jack o'lantern carver himself, had to give it to those radio guys for pulling it off.

These were heady, powerful revelations, folks. A kid thinking like a grown up about what was now fully solidified in my mind and soul as The Most Important Night of the Year.

Oh, there was plenty more to that night. I recall pieces of Nosferatu on PBS, but after such a long night of emotional downs and ups, I was tired. Dead to the bone, getting-over-an-illness, rescuing-from-disappointment tired.

My sister allowed that I could go to sleep in her room that night before everyone else came home from Gram's.

This was just cool because, well, being a younger sibling getting to hang in your older siblings' space is a big deal.

As a mild SoCal windstorm picked up outside, coaxing the fingers of drying branches to scratch the windows and shingles, I drifted in and out of sleep in the orange dimness of (I think it was) a Woody Woodpecker night light, sort of like this only with glitter in the plastic and the eyes and beak weren't painted:

... listening to the wind and the quiet raucus of mid-'70s pop on that little baseball shaped radio on the bedpost beside my ear...
Fly, Robin Fly, If You Leave Me Now, Could This Be The Magic?

... and as I lay there in a perfect mid-sleep state, I realized one more thing.

Rather than miss Hallowe'en, I had just experienced the first truly meaningful Hallowe'en of my young life. I had faced a sadness, met it, and dealt with it. I had learned so many things about myself and about Hallowe'en night.

And I was never, ever going to let another one get by me.

Strange, but as I neared real sleep I could hear children running, laughing, down the street. It couldn't have been, because it was well past 11 pm and there was no more trick-or-treating going on, but I heard them just the same.  
Maybe it was that wind (as I like to think, a sour-sweet Grinch Night wind). Hallowe'en was still playing itself out, all around me.

Soon, I could also hear the hushed-but-too-loud-whispering voices of my brothers as they returned home, sharing tales of scaring glory, of the best masks and the funniest lines from the Dr. Insano balcony show.

Sure, I could've felt jealous.
But then I realized something else. Soon, I was going to be the happy, healthy one having all the fun.

They were all going to come down with chicken pox in another week.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

And the seasons...

Weren't we just talking about the circularity of life?

Just after I posted the previous entry, I received some sad news.

Musician, singer, composer, makeup artist, mask maker, actor, puppeteer, and all around nice and funny fellow Verne Langdon has passed away.
September 15, 1941 --- January 1, 2011

Such a talented man, an interesting character with a really unique and storied life.

He was responsible, in whole or in part, for much that created the Monster Kid Craze of the mid-20th Century. For his work on the Don Post 'Calendar Masks' alone, he ought to have a monstrously-sized statue somewhere.

But he did so many other important things, contributed to or created from whole cloth so much that we horror-lovin' folk have come to know and love. And talk about a musician -- he studied with Korla Pandit, played on radio and television, even composed and produced albums of spooky organ and harpsichord music that have become as iconic to Monster Kids as the Aurora Models or the aforementioned Calendar Masks.

Click all the links and explore the amazing career of this remarkable artist.

I'd known of Verne and his works since childhood, but I actually met him through my travels to Monsterpalooza, where he was Master of Ceremonies in 2009 and 2010 (and looked for all the world like he would be in 2011).

 Sure he looks a little green, but what healthy monster doesn't?

It's sad to think I won't be seeing him this April. 

Yet another of the greats has passed. Another piece of musical, monstery, magical history has left us.

A toast, to an amazing man. 


Rest peacefully, Verne Langdon.

P.S. What are you thinking, 2011? I thought I asked you to slow things down. Damn.

New tunes & Old Tubes.

Welcome, S&Pers, welcome.

It's amazing to look over to the right and see 2009 and 2010 in the archives, and now 2011 just beginning.

It's also gratifying to look around the ol' place and see how much or little has changed in those few years.

One thing that is always changing is, of course, our little jukebox to the right. With each new month comes a change up in songs, and this month, this new year, is certainly no different.

Now, for the benefit of those just starting to visit the Skull & Pumpkin, something that never changes for the jukebox is the presence of Vince Guaraldi's The Great Pumpkin Waltz, which is the official theme song of the S&P, and Darol Anger/Barbara Higbie's Pumpkintime, the official incidental music of the S&P. The player always begins and ends with these two pieces.

As for the new stuff...

First up is the funky, futuristic, deliciously wintery Snowbound, from Donald Fagen's 1993 album Kamakiriad. It's an urban vignette of youthful nights stalking romance in a near-future cityscape glittering with colorful lights and technological diversions.

Next, in a North Wind kinda mood, I thought I would add Nick Drake's beautiful Northern Sky, from his 1970 album Bryter Layter. If you don't know who Nick Drake was, try here and then head to all the external links. To my mind (and ear), Northern Sky is one of his most perfect creations, a song that feels like all seasons of the year, sung to every lover you ever had, all at once. "Would you love me through the Winter?" Yep.

Then I wanted to add a little early winter instrumental twistery from pub-favorites Darol Anger and Barbara Higbie, this time from their 1982 album Tideline. The oddly named song, Onyame, is just as oddly wrought -- it feels new but primitive, delightful but dark, like January itself.

January means new, and pubs mean traditional. I think I've found a fine mix of both: Malcolm Dalglish's incredible hammer dulcimer piece New Waltz, from his 1990 album Jogging the Memory. It really is something you haven't heard -- it is new to you -- but it feels so very comfortable, so very old. So perfectly pub.

And as the years change, as the inevitable circularity of life enrobes us all, the time is perfect for Joni Mitchell's heartfelt The Circle Game. This particular recording is from her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, but she had written the song in the mid-'60s as a response to friend Neil Young's song Sugar Mountain, as a more positive take on growing up. That isn't to say it's not bittersweet -- the seasons do go 'round and 'round, and we are all captive on the carousel. But there is beauty, and truth, and dreams aplenty, before we're all done.

I've kept George Winston's beautiful piano solo Peace on the playlist, because it is so peaceful, a calm winter's night.

Then, as I was putting these songs into the player, I heard some Old Tubes clicking and humming...

... and a perfectly suited old radio program has deposited itself into the old Hallowe'enith console radio to the left.

From the 1940's series Dark Fantasy comes the rather appropriate episode Resolution, 1841 -- it begins, and was first broadcast, on January 2nd, 1942. It's a chilling bit of lo-fi, New Year fun, and worth the listen.

AH! 2011... I am anxious to see what you have in store, but let's do it at a bit more even and relaxed pace, shall we?

It seems to move so quickly lately.


Saturday, January 1, 2011


Does this not shout 'NEW' and 'JOYOUS' and 'MAGIC'?
New morning, new day, new night.

New year.

New is clean, is energy, is life's promise.

Enjoy your new, even as we celebrate memories passed, the long-loved, the old when it was itself new.

The infinite.

Come on back to the Skull & Pumpkin this year for all kinds of silliness, all kinds of All Hallow's joy.

A toast to your health, happiness, and a prosperous new year.