Tagged: Charles Dickens

Dennis O’Neil: The Perils of Captain Mighty

Okay, let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: Yesterday I published a novel. The title is The Perils of Captain Mighty and the Redemption of Danny the Kid. I’ll add one more fact: The original title was The Perils of Captain Power and the Redemption of Danny the Kid, but there were a couple of still active copyrights for “Captain Power” and although these copyrights weren’t likely to cause any problems, they could, and so Power becomes Mighty and we proceed to the next paragraph.

Are you expecting a little chest-beating here? Not happening. Not that I have anything against some self-congratulation and some of the writers I most admire were not above it. To cite three, a trio of my favorite Nineteenth Century scribblers: Charles Dickens (who, according to one source “thrived in the spotlight”); Mark Twain (who, according to another, had a “flair self-promotion”); and Walt Whitman, who sought praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson and got it (“I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” the sage of Concord wrote in a five-page letter Whitman later used to promote his Leaves of Grass.) In my own time, I might cite Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer as writers unburdened by crippling modesty. (Anyone with absolutely nothing better to do might list a few more, but let’s hope you’re not that desperate for amusement.)

Indeed, the “book tour” has become a regular part of publishing in which a writer stumbles into a camera’s lens finder or audiences of bibliophiles and, perhaps, if luck is near, scintillates, and then goes to airports.

Ah, but what if the writer is modest? What if that person were taught, perhaps with the emphasis of a branding iron, that gentlefolk do not speak of themselves and never, ever indulge in self-praise. I guess he or she emulates another nineteenth-century New Englander and echoes Emily Dickenson: “I’m nobody.” Or the person does as an adopted New Englander named J.D. Salinger did, buys isolated lodging and hides for a few decades.

A question: Why are the people I’ve mentioned, and others, reclusive? What, exactly, is modesty/humility, anyway? Do such things even exist? I suspect that in my case they’re other words for fear though I doubt that I’ll ever be able to confirm that. We may not always call what happens to us intimidation, we shy ones, and we may not be aware that it’s there. And nobody in particular is doing the intimidating.

Meanwhile, I’ve published a book and I’d feel better if I knew that, if you read it, you won’t hate me for writing it. But it’s not your fault that you’re intimidating me.

John Ostrander and The Humbug Murders

Humbug MurdersI’m a big fan of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I try to read it every Christmas, I watch multiple versions of it during the holiday season (including a half hour animated version starring Mister Magoo), and in my acting days I performed in the annual theater production of it at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. For the record, I played in the all-important parts of Mr. Lean, Fred’s friend number 3, dancing man, and ensemble.

Coming across a mystery called The Humbug Murders – An Ebenezer Scrooge Mystery by L.J. Oliver, I was quickly drawn in. Not without some hesitation; the notion of Dickens’ notorious miser acting as a detective rattled my chains a bit. Still, I decided to give it a chance.

For the most part, it works. L.J. Oliver is a pen name for Scott Ciencin and Elizabeth Wilson, both of whom are experienced authors. Sadly, Ciencin died in 2014. The story takes place in 1833 when Scrooge was still a relatively young man, only a few years removed from his days working for Mister Fezziwig. The story includes quite a number of characters from different Dickens’ novel as well as a young Dickens himself, still a reporter at this point.

I usually have trouble when authors place characters and creators in the same story. For example, I’ve seen Sherlock Holmes stories were Arthur Conan Doyle is also a character and it is said that Doyle is the “literary agent” of Doctor Watson. These arrangements suggest that the author didn’t have the imagination to create his/her own characters and, as an author, I dislike that insinuation.

Also, I had to reconcile the Scrooge in this mystery with the Scrooge I knew from A Christmas Carol. That was a bit difficult. It was hard to imagine the Scrooge that I already knew having had the experiences he had in this story and still becoming the same man. However, I simply decided that this was the Scrooge of an alternate, parallel dimension. Hey, I work in comics; alternate dimensions are an everyday occurrence where I come from.

In The Humbug Murders, Old Fezziwig, Scrooge’s former employer, has been brutally murdered. (The story has a goodly amount of rather graphic violence and touches on some lurid depravity, all of which may bother some folks.) Scrooge is a suspect and finds himself drawn into the mystery. A masked murderer calling himself Humbug is guilty of the crime and Old Fezziwig’s ghost (of course there are ghosts in the story), appearing to Ebenezer, says three more deaths will follow and that Scrooge himself will be the last victim. Unless, of course, the killer can be caught first.

The authors know the era and the locale, especially the less savory neighborhoods in London. They also know their Dickens and sometimes get a little cute in borrowing lines from A Christmas Carol. It sort of shouts “See how clever I am!” It also took me a little out of the story which an author should never do.

The reveal is a little difficult, requiring the killer to monologue in order to bring it all together. Scrooge himself, although a keen observer of humanity, doesn’t really uncover Humbug’s identity. The lead female character also comes across as a bit of a Mary Sue – the somewhat idealized projection of the female author.

Mostly, it’s a good mystery although I did spot the true killer some fifty pages before the reveal. It didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book, however. The ending promises a possible sequel which I wouldn’t mind reading although, since Mr. Ciencin died, that may be problematic. It was not a waste of my money which, no doubt, Mister Scrooge would consider a high compliment.

3.5 stars out of five.

John Ostrander: Scrooge Revisited

I love Christmas. It’s been my favorite time of the year as far back as I can remember – which, these days, may be last week. I think, in many ways, it was the run up to Christmas, also known as Advent, that I loved the most. It was the anticipation that made it special; what presents would we get, buying the present we would give, the Advent Wreath and the Advent Calendar. The day itself could be a bit of a let-down because it as never as good as the dream, the anticipation. How could it be? So long as it was a dream, it was perfect. The reality of something is always less than the dream of it.

While I was in grade school, each Christmas Eve I wound up at Midnight Mass (did I mention I was raised Roman Catholic?), singing in the Boy’s Choir. We practiced for weeks and that was also part of the anticipation.

At home, we also had a little ritual that my mother devised and that we dutifully performed/attended, although when we hit puberty it was only with protest. We marched down the stairs, the youngest carrying the Baby Jesus for the manger. We would read The Night Before Christmas (a.k.a. A Visit From Saint Nicholas) by Clement Clarke Moore.

A section of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, was also read. It was the Cratchit dinner scene in Stave Three of the story and it was from this that I began my life long fascination and affection for the story.

A Christmas Carol was written in 1843 and has never been out of print since. It spearheaded the revival of English Christmas customs, many of which survive to this day; it re-invigorated the celebration of the holiday. I have read the novella several times, I’ve watched many different versions of it on TV (and some I watch every year as part of my own personal Christmas tradition) and for several years I acted in it on stage at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, playing such vital parts as Mr. Round, Fred’s friend #3, Dancing Man, and Ensemble. A lot of my performance centered on my tearing off my clothes as soon as I got offstage, changing into others, and dashing to whatever part of the stage I was supposed to enter from next.

My great friend, William J. Norris, played Scrooge and he did it magnificently. One of my jobs, as I saw it, was to see if I could make him break up during the Fezziwig dance scene. I am not a trained dancer by any means and I would fly with my partner past Bill who was on the steps; I would be sweating and puffing and muttering, “Oh, I live to dance!” Yes, somewhat unprofessional, I know, but the only one who heard it was Bill and he giggled.

It was also during A Christmas Carol that I met Del Close, the fabled director, teacher, and actor at Second City and elsewhere, who played the Ghost of Christmas Present. He and I would later become writing partners on Munden’s Bar and Wasteland. Del, a pagan and witch, said his portrayal was based on Baccus; he also wore a pentangle under his costume, Del’s way of being subversive without being disruptive.

The production has become a yearly mainstay for the Goodman Theater, generating a lot of income that helps sustain it. But nobody knew that in its first year. As strange as it sounds now, it was a risky venture – a large cast, lots of costumes, fancy sets, and even special effects! If it didn’t come together, if it didn’t go over, the theater could be in trouble. As late as the final week before opening, the show still hadn’t jelled.

Opening night was magic. Everything worked and the audience was with us every step of the way. Just as the show ended, a light snow began falling outside. We all wondered how the Special Effects people had rigged that.

Most of all, the audience was drawn in to the story. It’s a brilliant concept – a ghost story set, not at Halloween, but Christmas. I have yet to see a play version or movie or television adaptation that emphasizes that. The ghost story aspects should, I think, be frightening. It’s what establishes what is at stake for Scrooge. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are powerful entities; if we only observe them and not feel them, Scrooge’s reformation is hard to fathom.

Also central to A Christmas Carol is its social conscience and message. This is often glossed over or omitted entirely and that’s a shame; it is the soul of the story. It is scary how much of that message is still relevant; Scrooge early on claims to be “a man of business”. He also famously says of the poor: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” How prevalent that attitude seems today. One might wish it had become outdated; it seems stronger than ever.

So, part of my Christmas celebration will be to watch my favorite movie version, with Alastair Sim, on Christmas Eve, along with its American counterpart, it’s A Wonderful Life. And wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

God Bless Us, Everyone.

C’mon; you knew I was going to say that.

(Photo I.D. – Val Bettin, left, and William J. Norris in the Goodman Theater’s A Christmas Carol, from its first run in 1978)