Sunday, November 9, 2014

Veteran’s Day 2014

Veteran’s Day is the day we honor our nation’s veterans, but it’s a lot more than that.  I’d also like to honor their spouses and dependants as well as the many civilians who work for the U.S. military past and present.  This is a common effort and we have the common cause of keeping America free.  

I want to combine two important events in this post.  Veteran’s Day, which is on the 11th of November and the Fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago today, 9 November 1989.  In a sense you can say that the Cold War was really a sort of low intensity WWIII.  Unlike WWI and WWII, it wasn’t a big shooting war, but involved the whole world and dozens of smaller conflicts.  But although there were not great classic battles, the Cold War had dozens of regional wars, tens of thousands of hostile encounters and millions under the yoke of statist dictators, revolutionaries who functioned much like fascists than socialists, and a lot of money and lives lost.  The fall of the Berlin Wall is a good a date as any to mark the end of the Cold War and for once a war ended peacefully. 

I lived much of my life in that post-WWII Cold War setting, with air raid drills, the fear of atomic destruction, the terrorists funded by our enemies, the constant strain of being in an undeclared war.  There was a bit of an added dimension because I grew up as a military dependant, mostly overseas.  I was pretty much like everybody else who was a dependant overseas in those days.  At the time, it didn’t seem terribly abnormal. 

Many years later, I joined the Air Force and I was stationed in Germany.  The last time I was there it was as a dependant.  It came to pass that East Germany fell apart and as it collapsed, so did the dreaded Berlin Wall.  You know, the one they shot you for trying to climb over, under or through.  In fact my landlord climbed over that same wall as a 16 year old youth in the 1960s, leaving behind a life, family, and incidentally the tyranny of the DDR.

I was stationed at a base that is now closed, which is a good legacy of the peace that followed.  The guys down the hall were combat controllers and generally out for a bit of fun.  A couple of them just happened to be in Berlin on leave when the first section fell.  A big corner broke off and just lay there.  Well they grabbed it up and tossed it into their van.  Ironically, they were chased by West German police, because that chunk of concrete still officially belonged to the East German government and it must be returned.  The Berlin Wall was actually completely in East Germany and so DDR property.  It was there to keep East Germans in rather to keep anybody out. 

They escaped with their prize and when they came to the office, they triumphantly handed out section chipped off that corner to all and sundry.  Actually the whole thing as still up in the air, the DDR still existed, kinda, and the USSR was still around, but not sure what to do when East Germany just fell apart.  The Cold War wasn’t officially ended, but you could see it from here.

Soon the flea markets were full of East German flags and uniform, and followed by Soviet gear left behind by the soldiers of the USSR, who were peacefully returning home.  Somehow, buying your Soviet or East German Flag at a flea market was a lot better than taking it from a bombed out building or off of a corpse.  Often the items could be purchased directly from an ex-East German or Soviet who decided to say in Germany – besides, they needed the cash.

There’s still a lot going on in the world and a lot of wars happening, I won’t pretend that end of the Cold War stopped that.  Human nature didn’t suddenly change and not all the bad guys went away.  Some morphed, some napped for a while, and new ones have arisen.  The challenge of being free is contested both inside and outside of this country and not everybody has the same vision.  But a difference of opinion is not a war nor is disagreement.  It takes a will to start a war and a stronger will to end one, either by conflict or by conscience.   I’ve focused on the Cold War because it was one the ended magically – no atomic weapons, no hordes of Warsaw Pact tanks flowing though Fulda Gap, no expansion of Communist Chinese might in unison with the USSR.  No Red Dawn.  

For those who fought the hot wars, the proxy wars, the wars in strange places, the secret wars, fought the terrorists, for those who were there to just show the flag on land, sea and air, I salute you.  I also salute you out there who are still standing tall, fighting physically and mentally the enemies of freedom.  For you spouses and dependants, for you old vets and you young guys just in, thanks a lot.   For those who died yesterday or 50 years, 100 years or 200 plus years ago, I hope we won’t let you down.

I choose to “celebrate” Veteran’s Day quietly with no flag waving, but just quiet contemplation.  I’ll open up that box of memories and take out that Soviet flag and that East German flag and think how cheaply in blood they were bought.  I’ll open up a box of photos of my father from WWI, Korea, and Vietnam and think it’s too bad he passed away a little before the end of Cold War.  He was also at the Pentagon and SAC, so he saw the big picture.  Maybe I’ll just have a beer and think how it’s forbidden in some countries and look at my books and think about how most of them are forbidden as well.  Enough somber thoughts.  Remember that your brain is your most powerful weapon. 

Since this is a SF & F blog, here are a few books of speculative fiction and SF that you might enjoy reading.  I’ve read these books and like the each for a different reason.  This only scratches the surface and doesn’t cover much ground, but these are the first five that I came up with off the top of my head.   Happy reading.     CoastConFan

     The Man in the High Castle, 1962, Phillip K. Dick
     Europe Central, 2005, William Vollman
     Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949, George Orwell
     Fatherland, 1992, Robert Harris
     The Iron Dream, 1972, Norman Spinrad

Links of Interest

It’s not much but some restaurants are offering free meals for active duty members as well as veterans.  Click on the link to find out more:

UPDATE Dec 2014

I recently saw the 2006 German language film about the dark days of the DDR,  Das Leben der Anderen, (The Lives of Others) about a Stasi operative who becomes entangled in the passions of playwright while spying on him.  I’ve got to say that I was impressed with the film and I’ll have to locate a copy of the book in English.

On the lighter side of East Germany is the comedy film about an East German man who was in a coma for years only to awaken after the Berlin Wall has come down and the two Germanys have been reunited.  Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), is a chuckle, but you really have to know a bit about the old DDR to get the jokes. 

An older comedy film about the DDR, but filmed just before the Berlin Wall went up in August 1961 is the film, One, Two, Three (1961) starring of all people Jimmy Cagney.  I saw this one again a few months back on TCM after a long hiatus.  It’s not nearly as good as the previous films nor as good as the excellent Cold War farce, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), which holds out a bit of hope during the depths of the cold war.  Then again, The Russians Are Coming doesn’t take place in Berlin, and there are no East Germans, so it really doesn’t count in this listing.

There’s a lot of movies set in Berlin from the silent era to the present, and you can find a list here:

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween 2014

Happy Halloween to all of you out there in Blogland!  I'll have my treat now, because I'll probably get a trick in the upcoming November election. 

The fate of the last trick-or-treater who said, "trick" to the kitten.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Ancient Tanis, Forgotten Occasionally But Not Lost – From Rosemary’s Baby to Indiana Jones

What has the Nile delta, the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Rosemary’s Baby have in common?

Tanis … a city to conjure with, is an actual city rooted in history and interestingly enough, not lost at all and it never was; but it did get forgotten on occasion.  With this grammatically clumsy and editorially nightmarish opening sentence, let me introduce you to the historical Egyptian city of Tanis, by way of fiction and hearsay.  Most have only heard of Tanis through fiction, either in books or movies, probably primarily through the late 60s book and film, Rosemary’s Baby and through the classic 80s film, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. so let’s use those as a jumping off point.  Motherhood first.  
Rosemary’s Baby [1] (the 1967 book by Ira Levin and the 1968 film by Roman Polanski) features a silver filigree talisman filled with what is referred to as “Tannis Root”, that is part and parcel of making her baby “more like her father.”  It is associated with evil (according to the book quoted below) and as a partial MacGuffin (plot device) required to help things along as well as to cue you in as to who is in on the conspiracy.

In the book & film a (fictional) book is cited, All Them Witches, which just happens to have an underlined passage, (for the slow learners no doubt) shedding light on Tannis Root:  

 In their rituals, they often use the fungus called Devil's Pepper.  This is a spongy matter derived from swampy regions having a strong pungent odor. Devil's Pepper is considered to have special powers.  It has been used in rituals and worn on charms.

The chatty Marilyn Harvey, who is Dr. Saperstein’s receptionist, happens to mention that the good doctor, “… has the same smell once in a while, whatever it is, and when he does, oh boy."
In the story, a neighbor in the apartment building, Terry Gionoffrio, plunges to her death, wearing a “Tannis Root” filled pendant, after putting up with a wild night of chanting by her neighbors.  If you have ever lived in thin-wall apartments, you know the feeling.  Confusingly, there is a real plant called Devil’s Pepper, which is toxic, but there is no Tannis Root because it’s only a plot device.[2]  BTW, the actual Devil’s Pepper is not a fungus or a tuber, it’s a tree, all parts of which are toxic as the name Rauvolfia Vomitoria might suggest.  I haven’t found anything to indicate Devil’s Pepper (aka Tannis Root) has any strong, disagreeable odor.  Like in Lovecraft’s works, the horror from this story comes from the inevitability of the conclusion as well as the steps of getting there, not in the ending itself.  Remember that horror is a process, not a destination. 

You might be thinking, why this Tanis place anyway?  Tanis (Zoan in the Bible, but also under other names) might have gotten this magical association because ancient Egypt in general had a strong traditional association with magic starting from the time of the early era of the Hebrews, then the Greeks and Romans [3], through the Middle Ages and Renaissance right down to today.  Tanis, is in proximity to Alexandria (one of the great epicenters of magic teachings in ancient times) and the fact that Tanis supposedly becomes “lost” or destroyed by an angry deity gets some of that classical magical association with the big plus of being in the lost city genre.  But it’s not as easy as that.

The only problem is that Tanis was never actually lost or destroyed, but nearby Lake Manzala and its associated canal silted up and the city slowly went into decline over the centuries.   It was eventually abandoned with the ruins showing clearly there had been an important city at one time.  Tanis was located on the north east portion of the Nile delta with a useful lake and canal, making it an important seaport to the known world and land conduit to lands to the east.  Founded around 1070 BCE and it peaked in the XIX and XXI dynasties as a southern capital of a divided nation, but eventually had a long languishing decline and was final abandoned about 500 CE.  Tanis lived on a heck of a long time after the biblical era.  Tanis is noted by the ancient writers Strabo, Julius Caesar, Mantheo, Herodotus, Pliny, and Ptolemy, who mentioned Tanis, none as a ruin.  No, this time around I’m not going to dig out the refs, page, and line numbers, do it yourself.  But here's a map to put the location into perspective.
In fact, later Tanis was the site of numerous archaeological digs beginning in the mid 19th century, involving such luminaries as Auguste Mariette and Flinders Petrie.  Both these guys are well worth some reading if you have any sort of interest in the history of archeology.  Between the two of them, you can trace the change from artifact collecting to what we now know as modern archeological technique.

Jumping way ahead, in 1939 several intact royal tombs of the 21st and 22nd dynasties were excavated in the main temple enclosure in Tanis, but it wasn;t by Germans but by the French.  No, not Dr. René Emile Belloq, but Prof. Pierre Montet. They found lots of wonderful artifacts, silver coffins, gold masks, and jewelry in gold, which recall the burial of Tutankhamen, though the Tanis finds are not quite as rich or as well known.  Moreover, the Tanis tombs were secondhand and even the sarcophagi were reused material from earlier periods.  In 2009 a sacred lake measuring 50 by 40 feet (15 by 12 meters) and dedicated to the goddess Mut was found at Tanis and work in the area continues.

In Weird Fiction, setting and background information is very important.  Ancient missing cities are great stuff of fiction and that glamour is transferred to whatever you are writing about when it’s associated together with your subject.  Read that as “street cred.”  Sprinkle on the magical association of ancient Egypt and you have instant mystery in ancient settings, especially if it is unverifiable because the city is lost.
The Tanis of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, is all pretty much ballyhoo because Tanis was never lost and it wasn’t destroyed by a sand storm, the Well of Souls isn’t in Tanis – it’s supposedly in Jerusalem under the Dome of The Rock.  For that matter, the Staff of Ra is totally fictional, but makes a great MacGuffin and a beautiful scene in the fictional map room.  Of course the Nazis didn’t “discover Tanis” in 1936, because it has been an important archeological dig site for well 50 years prior.  Today it continues to yield archeological objects and data.  But hey, mystery sells – even if you have to invent it. 
But let’s recap Raiders for those who were asleep: 
Jones:  Yes, the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets Moses brought down  
 from Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing. Any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?
Musgrove:  Well, I --
Jones:  Oh, look.  The Hebrews took the broken pieces and put them in the Ark. When they settled in Canaan, they put the Ark in a place called the Temple of Solomon.
Marcus:  In Jerusalem.
Jones:  Where it stayed for many years. Until, all of a sudden, whoosh, it's gone.
Eaton:  Where?
Jones:  Well, nobody knows where or when.
Marcus:  However, an Egyptian pharaoh --
Jones:  Shishak.
Marcus: Yes... invaded the city of Jerusalem in 980 B.C., and he may have taken the Ark 
back to the city of Tanis and hidden it in a secret chamber called the Well of Souls.
Eaton:  Secret chamber?
Marcus Brody:  However, about a year after the pharaoh had returned to Egypt, the city 
of Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a whole year.  Wiped clean by the wrath of God. [4]
Musgrove:  Obviously, we've come to the right men.  Now, you seem to know, uh, all about
this Tanis, then.
Know Tanis they do, at least they know an important way of using fiction to embed the Macguffin(s) into history, or at least quasi-history, with a big dollup of goose grease and a lot of chrome.  But it works well for story progression.  Remember what H. P. Lovecraft said about writing Weird Fiction

If I may quote a bit of dialogue from earlier in Raiders which illustrates the point perfectly.  The scene is Prof Jones, teaching his archeology class:  This site also demonstrates one of the great dangers of archeology, not to life and limb, although that does sometimes take place, I'm talking about folklore.”  In this case it’s folklore injected directly into the story by the writers [5] of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The folklore is added by the movie makers themselves to the story of “lost” Tanis, the location of Well of Souls to Tanis, the Ark of the Covenant in Tanis, Staff of Ra, the Map Room & etc. 
By now you probably have a few questions.  Here’s a few links to answer some of your questions about the real Tanis and also the Raider’s fictional Tanis rather than drag this out any further.  There will be no test.

And finally, Tannis anyone?  (Yeah, I had to say it).  That cliche goes back a long way to Humphrey Bogart's youth when he played young aristocrats on stage.  See the link  Sorry for the diversion, back to the subject at hand.

By embedding your story or prop into history and weaving a bit of folklore into the mix, you can add depth to your work, just don’t start believing your own inventions and propaganda.  There are also plenty of fringe and crank books that you can mine for “associations” to fill out your pseudo history if the actual historical record is a bit thin.  It worked well for Raiders sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls – well kinda.  As an aside, why do all these ancient temples that stood for thousands of years always just happen to cave in when the good guys show up?

Hopefully this viewing of historical Tanis through the distorting lens of fictional book and film will make you more interested in the history of Tanis as well as understand a bit better about the use of historical settings in building up credibility in Weird Fiction as well as touching on the important of props and their backstory. 

I felt my previous posts were getting a bit heavy and relied a lot on ancient writings, so I thought I would lighten it up a bit with some popular fiction references and how they tie into history and the importance of settings and background information in weird fiction for writers and prop makers.  The techniques of fiction writers are worth some study to gain insight into the technique.  In prop making, the backstory and presentation is nearly as important as the prop itself to make a believable whole and a create a lifting of disbelief. 

Mea Culpa – Kinda, Sorta

I’m not a biblical scholar by any means and frankly a lot has been debated by theologians and scholars for centuries, so I expect that some of the dates and explanations here might fall short in somebody’s eyes (be it scholar, theologian, or just plain crank) at some time or another.  I’m not really interested in stirring soul-searching debate, just making discussion about the use of the historical Tanis in fictional works.  I also attempted to keep it under my 3,000 word cap by using lots of links.  If you enjoyed this Egyptian article, you might also check out my other post about The First Female Pharaoh Nitocris and her association with the Weird Tales crowd.  Again, I am no historian and not an author, so any errors I made, were made … uh, erroneously. 

I really had a lot of fun putting together this article and found there was way too much to include, so I added a lot of interesting links below.  Hopefully this tantalization will encourage you to check out some of the material.  Happy reading.                                 CoastConFan

Update, March 2015 – I did some reading recently and turned up some more Tanis information: 

During the western attack on Fatimid Egypt, the town of Tanis was attacked by a small fleet of forces of crusaders, mostly newly arrived in the mideast from Nevers, France, in early November of 1168 and all the people in the town slaughtered.  This late destruction added in with the ongoing silting up of the access route and the terrible slaughter of the inhabitants, many of which were Christian Copts, which was probably was a major step in the decline of Tanis.  The fact that the French forces has lost their commander while reroute meant that they were only controlled with great exertion by the overall commander, King Amalric I of Jerusalem with his Hospitaller Knights. 

Source, P381, Vol II, A History of the Crusades, Steven Runciman, Cambridge University Press 1951.  

Fifty years later, the Crusaders came back (5th Crusade) and invaded Egypt again.  While besieging the delta city of Diametta they decided to go over to Tanis for another swipe in November 1219.  They found the town evacuated and the Crusaders looted to their heart's content. They eventually also took Diametta, but didn't hold it for long and the whole bunch got ejected.  Source, P162, Vol III op. cit. 

H. Rider Haggard wrote the novel, The World’s Desire (1889 in serial form) in collaboration with Andrew Lang.  A good portion of the story takes place in Tanis where Odysseus, an eternal wanderer, tries to choose between two women after his wife is slain.  There are some interesting modern spins on the meaning of the story of dualities and choice.    I read this back in the early 70s and probably will have to do a reread since its gotten a bit fuzzy in my memory.  But we are in luck because it’s available in electronic form on Project Gutenberg, for free.   Download The World’s Desire here.

Update May 2017-- I added a map (above) that shows the Nile Delta and the location of Tanis.

  [1] Rosemary’s Baby was the best selling horror novel of the 1960s and is well worth a read as a highly influential suspense/horror work that taps into some of the most primal of fears:  What if our baby is “not normal” and “what if my spouse is working against me.”  These fears are right up there with fear of the dead/returning dead on the Fear Index.  The film and book are underrated these days, but really needs to be included in any list of classic horror works.

  [2] BTW, Lovecraft associations run deep in Levins’ Rosemary’s Baby:  Hutch the landlord knows the apartment’s dark reputation. He tells them of terrible things that took place in the building around the turn of the century:  about two sisters, who cooked and ate several children including a niece of theirs in the Victorian era.  Adrian Marcato, lived there in the 1890s and practiced witchcraft, claiming to have conjured up the living devil.  Some residents and neighbors must have believed him because he was attacked and nearly killed in the lobby.  
  According to the story line, after that, the building was known as The Black Bramford.  But things didn’t end there, because in 1959, a dead infant was found in the basement wrapped in newspaper.  Despite all that, our couple decides to live there anyway (classic).  After they move in, their neighbor leaps to his death, wearing a Tannis Root talisman.  But this doesn’t deter the couple and they conceive a child who looks like its daddy.  Doesn’t this sound a bit like The Dunwich Horror, Pickman’s Model, or Dreams in the Witch House?  See this synopsis of Rosemary’s Baby if you are interested:
  The building exterior used in the film version was an actual NYC structure, the Dakota, (1 West 72nd Street) started in Oct 1880 and finished in Oct 1884 and is a historic building on Central Park West.  Coincidently it was at the Dakota, that John Lennon lived and was killed outside the entrance 8 Dec 1980 by Mark Chapman, nearly 100 years after construction started on the Dakota.  Note that the fictional Black Bramford of Rosemary’s Baby fame is located by Levin at 55th St and 7th Ave in the book.  Since only the exterior was used, interiors were filmed on sets in Hollywood.
  [3] Egypt was considered so contaminating by the Roman government, that travel to Egypt by Romans was highly restricted for many years after the conquest, especially for high-level functionaries of the Empire.
  [4] So the historical Tanis wasn’t swallowed up by a sandstorm at that time, since it was around circa 500 CE, about 1,500 years after the sacking of the First Temple, but it does make for a good story.

Encyclopedia Brittanica says:  Tanis, biblical Zoan, modern Ṣān al-Ḥajar al-Qibliyyah,  ancient city in the Nile River delta, capital of the 14th nome (province) of Lower Egypt and, at one time, of the whole country. The city was important as one of the nearest ports to the Asiatic seaboard. With the decline of Egypt’s Asiatic empire in the late 20th dynasty, the capital was shifted from Per Ramessu, and about 1075 BCE the 21st-dynasty pharaohs made Tanis their capital. A large temple of Amon was built, mainly with stone from the ruins of Per Ramessu. The Libyan pharaohs of the 22nd dynasty continued to reside at Tanis until the collapse of their shrinking domain before Shabaka, the Kushite founder of the 25th dynasty, in 712 BCE. Tanis declined with Shabaka’s shift of the royal capital to Memphis and with the rise of Pelusium, 20 miles (32 km) to the east, as the main eastern-frontier fortress and trade centre.”

Links of interest
A blog article about Polanski’s additions to the Rosemary’s Baby script

Links about the real, historical Tanis with great photos: 
A nice site with an overview of Tanis tombs
Biblical importance of Tanis/Zoan

Abbreviated account of Petrie’s Findings at Tanis
For the hard-core archeology fan: dig books of Flinder Petrie 1883-4 Pt I 

Biblical historical associations of Tanis

Photos of the filming of Raiders at the set of Tanis
Some shots where they filed the Tanis dig location for the film

For those of you with a quick eye, you may have noticed the R2D2 & 3CPO friez in the tomb:
He also points out that:  THX1138 is on a license plate of a car in Egypt (that license plate gets around – it was in American Grafitti as well.

Raiders prop stuff
Image in the Bible in Raiders. 

Design of the prop ark based on artwork by 19th century James Tissot
James Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1836 – 1902

A bit of trivia about the name Tanis
Far from having a sinister association, Tanis has been used as a personal name for over 100 years.  I haven’t delved into it deeply but I did turn up a few facts.  The use of Tanis as a male name in English seems to be much more recent than its use as a female name. One of the first uses of it for a female character was in American author Amelie Rives's novel, Tanis the Sand-digger (1893).  Sinclair Lewis's famous 1922 novel, Babbitt features a female character named Tanis Judique.

You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Michael Moses Pottery and the Lovecraft Cthulhu Box

The stars are right!  Here’s a ceramic piece that mixes Georgian era mourning themes, H. P. Lovecraft, and Chinese styles in an eclectic production worthy of its own inclusion in Weird Tales. 
An old friend of my mine, Michael W. Moses the art ceramicist had just gotten a new piece of ceramic out of the kiln the other day.  He allowed me to photograph it in a little tableau that sets off its complex mood and little surprises quite nicely.   The body of the box is just over four inches at its widest and varies from just over one and a half inch deep to over two and a half inches deep.  The lid is five and a quarter inches wide and under an inch deep.  Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the fun.
This offering is a cylindrical lidded box with an asymmetric cant to the rim so it’s not a perfect cylinder, but bent slightly.  It’s painted in a type of blue-and-white ware that is evocative of 17th and 18th century Chinese export ware as well as period Continental imitators (such as Delftware) of this type of ceramic.  The box has been meticulously hand-painted all over and I mean on every surface!  The style is not in the typical heavy, solid blue, but in a softer watercolor style, which is semi opaque due to the underglaze paint being applied directly to the bisque body in delicate layers. 

The top of the lid features a classic, misty Georgian mourning scene with the iconic urn and weeping willow, but it is perked up with a little Japanese pine tree in the right.  Notice also on the far left, in place of the typical obelisk, there is a strange stone menhir beside willow.  Setting off the vignette there is a wide border of white nothingness that frames the image – again very Japanese with the effective use of white space.

The outside of the box is an interpretation of a cyclopedian wall, which could well be from Machu Picchu or R’lyeh.  Actually, the wall could also be in the mood of an abstract Japanese or fabric ceramic pattern as well.  This wall echoes the Georgina themes as the wall around the graveyard, yet is much more ancient.  If you look closely at the wall, you will see curious little things on it:  creatures, mazes, and even scenes of other places or times. 

When you open this box you find a bit of a surprise inside because it has a fully illustrated interior.  The inside wall of the box has a lot of curious plants growing around it.  Is it undersea life?  Is it alien plants from another planet or are they actually animals like corals or crinoids?  I do know that each plant unique, individual and there are about 40 of them.  We’ll probably never know their origin or names.  Notice how the plants fade in an out slightly as if they were underwater or showing through another dimension or in a slight fog from a moor.  The bottom of the interior has a polyhedral tile set into the floor with a very long inscription in an unknown language; it’s not even possible to determine the orientation of the text.
Do you think that’s the end of the surprises?  Nope, flip the lid over and get a view of H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, Cthulhu (Cthulhu Pantocrator? Phagiomundi?) with yellow eyes (the only other color on the whole piece).   You see that that Dread Cthulhu, surrounded by impressionist stars,[1] and is peering at you from what might be the porthole of a ship, from the bottom of a well, or from the viewer of a Tillinghast Resonator[2].  Note that the rim of the inside lip has a jaunty dash decoration. 
OK, one more bit hidden joy is found on the bottom of the work.  Along with Michael W. Moses’ inscription and signature, is a pretty unknown type of winged arachnid within a border, it may be cryptozoological, but it probably isn’t poisonous or going to lay eggs inside you, probably.  Note that the roundel is glazed but the rest of the bottom of the box is bisque, which gives a different texture.   

Mr. Moses has layered on historical styles, periods and interpretations all on one box.  Each design is original, unique, and hand-painted.  It is not transfer ware or machine made.  This is part of his second line of pottery where he uses a commercial blank rather than the typical hand-built body you see in his works.  He says the great thing about pottery and ceramics is that they can survive for thousands of years, unless a glacier in the next ice age grinds it up.

Michael started making blue willow type porcelain about 30 years ago and it has resurfaced in his work again in his new series of Delft-like wares.  Unlike Delftware, this ceramic is no base coat of white tin glaze, instead the bisque body is already snowy white.  The blue is painted directly onto the bisque using an underglaze paint and then a clear overglaze is applied over the whole.  The whole thing is fired to cone 7 or so. 
This art design is copyright Michael W. Moses 2014.  Go to his blog to see this work in progress before the final firing.  You might be surprised that the false colors end up blue and the green as clear.  Each piece of his work is individually serial numbered, but note that when I got there and photographed the piece before the serial number was written.  For that matter, he hadn’t even finalized the name of the piece yet.
After I took the initial photos, I got playing around with the Cthulhu Box and put together some tableaus to show off what a good decorator it would make.  I added in a few props such as a candlestick from the late 1600s, a brass late Ottoman pen & ink set, a pair of 1840 double lens “D” sunglasses and case, some Star Hibiscus seed pods (because they looked interesting) and the interesting water glass is actually just a modern green bubble glass.  I didn’t realize that the picture would be a little distorted, but in the end, but I can always claim I meant for that effect.

Another blue and white work
So if you need a stealth creepy piece of art for your study, beside table, boudoir, or just a collector of art, this box should fill the bill.  It’s a unique hand-painted work inspired by a mélange of historical ideas and artistic styles.  Michael W. Moses’ pottery can be seen on Etsy, and his blog on line.  All you have to do is Google “Michael Moses Pottery” to get a large number of image hits.  You’ll enjoy his cryptozoological plant/animals and other works of his fertile mind. 
  [1] The Tillinghast Resonator is a lab device from the H. P. Lovecraft story, From Beyond, pub. 1934, which allows the unseen world to be revealed.  Read the story here:
  [2] The star background behind Cthulhu really puts me in mind of Van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night,

Links of interest
Michael Moses’ blog article featuring this piece:
Another Michael Moses piece, featured on Propnomicon back in 2011:
Plant symbology was important in mourning iconography:

For those of you who made it this far, a little movie:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

John Hamish Watson, MD or The Mystery of the Carried Gun

Among readers of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, there has always been speculation about the identity of Dr. Watson’s mentioned but never named “service revolver”[1] and that has dovetailed with my interest in Victorian armament.  So I have put together a list of possible suspects.  Let me say I am by no means a sage on Holmesian literature and the study of British firearms of the Victorian period is a tangled web at best.  Further, the study of British 19th century cartridges and manufactures is even more fraught with confusion.  But first, let me set out some pertinent information about our esteemed Dr. Watson.  Self-depreciating, Watson seldom talked about himself outside of the chronicled adventures with Holmes, so we have do a little detective work ourselves. 

We find out in A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle (written 1886, pub 1887) that Watson got his medical degree in 1878 and at some point afterward he joined the British army (rank unknown), at some time and then attached to the 66th Berkshire Regiment of Foot (no doubt in the capacity as doctor).  He was wounded during the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War at the Battle of Maiwand (27 July 1880).  Doyle may have also lumped the catastrophic retreat to Kandahar into the action, but probably not the subsequent  Battle of Kandahar and the relief action itself.  Dr. Watson survived the battle and his wound, and he recuperated for a few months (presumably in India or possibly South Africa) before returning from overseas to London and leaving the army.  That would make it at least 1881 or so, (with travel time added) that Watson meets Holmes in London, presuming they met fairly soon after his arrival.  Another indicator of the time frame is that the ever-perceptive Holmes did not comment on Dr. Watson’s wound so it must have fully healed, nor did Watson suggest it slowed him down in the least during A Study in Scarlet, indicating a full recovery.

As a side note, Dr. Watson was not the bungling second-rater or stooge as depicted on the stage and in later films[2], but a battle-hardened veteran and combat doctor, exposed to the grueling life on the frontier as well as having seen (and treated) casualties and a horrific battle, retreat, siege, battle again and relief, not seen since the Sepoy Mutiny (or the earlier 1st Afghan War) just a generation previously.  He survived a wound and was willing to go on to adventures with his new-found friend and later roommate, Sherlock Holmes, about a year after these traumatic events.  Watson’s toughness, resourcefulness, and overall pluck were overshadowed by his reluctance to put himself forward when writing these stories.  Consider that Watson never put himself forward in the Holmsian screeds nor even wrote a memoir about horrific the Battle of Maiwand, so that you never see the real Dr. Watson.  But if you read a bit about the battle and the 66th you might get the idea of the level of carnage and bravery of the action.
Back to our story.  If you presume that Watson carried his standard issue pistol from Afghanistan in at least the first few adventures, then it would probably be the approved and issued Adams Mk III in .450 caliber.  It was a large-framed, bulky military holster revolver and not conducive to concealed carry necessary for a detective, nor would it fit well into all but the largest overcoat pocket.  The Mark III was directly descended from the venerable percussion revolver of Sepoy Mutiny and Crimean War fame, with numerous upgrades such over the years such as the action being modified from double action only to a double action/single action mechanism and to take metallic cartridges.  This much-modified product of years of tinkering and the final product, the Adams Mk III was finally declared obsolete for the British Army in 1882.  The replacing gun was nearly as bulky, the Enfield revolver in 1882, which was replaced again, this time by the Webley Mk I in 1887, a much more compact and modern gun.  The Webley series of revolvers continued to serve Britain for decades. 

However, because many British officers had the option to choose and purchase their own pistols, it might have been another weapon than the official Adams Mk III.  Also, seeing that Watson, having been an ex-military man and a modern detective, he might have just purchased a newer, more state-of-the-art gun every time a useful new model came out to keep up with technology.  So it would not be a single gun, but a suite of revolvers suited to specific purposes (like concealment) used by Dr. Watson over the years, such as the Webley R.I.C or a Webley Bulldog, which were not British military issue service guns, but quite popular officer purchase weapons and for carry with police and private individuals.  The Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) was a popular British police issue gun and there were and many copies were made on the Continent as well.  Yes, London Police carried guns and they had been armed off and on since 1883, with 821 receiving firearms instruction that year.   Even earlier, police were irregularly armed over the previous decades and even earlier they carried a light sword as well as a brace of flintlock pistols, but that is beyond our story.
I have handled a number of guns listed here over the years such an early Adams models, a number of Bulldogs, both British made and popular Belgian copies as well as the time-honored Webley Mk I through the Mark VI.  Excluding the Adams because of its great size, they all are sturdy and functional, moderately concealable, eminently carryable on the person without a holster and had stout, heavy cartridges for close work and very popular in their day.  The Adams traces its origin back to the muzzle loading, percussion cap era of the early 1850s with constant updates, while retaining the same large frame, with a rather weak cartridge but was the standard service arm of the British army for a long time.

To further muddy the waters, the author himself (Doyle), was apparently not well versed in arms or weapons terminology and made a few errors himself:  Referring to an Eley’s No. 2 (a large bore rifle cartridge) when he might have meant a Webley Revolver No. 2 in .440 rimfire or possibly a Webley R.I.C. No. 2, which would have a variety of loads from .450 to .320  (The Speckled Band, 1892).   The Eley Brothers made and imported cartridges of all types but they never made firearms.  He also mentions Boxer cartridges, which refers to a type of patented cartridge primer system, not to any particular cartridge and certainly not to any specific gun (Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894).  Given number of gun references in Watson’s narratives, apparently firearms were lying all about the apartment and certainly daggers adorned the walls.  I’m sure they shared guns or had a common arsenal. 

The true answer to this gun quandary is that the Ely Number 2 references was probably to a cartridge very similar to a .22 CB cap [7] and fired from a variety of small guns (single shot and revolver) made for indoor target shooting much like a gallery or saloon gun.  The Number No. 2 Ely cartridge had no propellant powder and the bullet was just sent down the barrel by the power of the primer only.  I told you it was confusing and Doyle’s unfamiliarity with firearms and cartridges of the late Victorian  period just muddies already murky waters. The only other alternative is another Eley No. 2 (headstamped such, see illustration) for an express rifle and 4 ½ inches long – clearly not a pistol round and not for shooting indoors, at least I wouldn’t do so.   See footnotes [3] [4] [5] [6]

So what we have here are probably several guns used by the good doctor (and his partner Holmes as well) over a period of years.  The first of the bunch being the pistol that Watson carried in Afghanistan and in the first adventures.  Later he probably procured smaller, more modern pistols as his career continued through the decades.  Some of the best guesses for later guns would be the Webley R.I.C. or Bulldog (and copies) and possibly later than that, the venerable military issue Webley Mk I (adopted 1887 and available as a civilian purchase model).  All of these later guns are somewhat compact and have powerful cartridges.  But ultimately, there is no proof positive of any particular gun being used by Dr. Watson in his adventures beyond the shadow of a doubt.  With this final Holmesian mystery about which gun(s) Watson might have carried, I leave the reader with the admonishment that it is indeed not elementary at all.
I actually originally wrote the bones to this article about three years ago, mostly in response to a Propnomicon post about a cased prop Watson gun, but let the article languish uncompleted.  Once I came back to the subject, I found that a few others had attempted to figure out the Watson gun question, so I decided to polish up the article and publish it finally.  I had intended to also produce a second Holmsean weapons article about the air gun used by Col Moran in the Adventure of the Empty House, but it didn’t go much beyond the outline stage.  Hopefully I’ll get that article put together.

Footnotes (of course)
[1] "I have my old service revolver and a few cartridges."  Dr. John Watson to Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet.

[2] Early depictions of Sherlock Holmes and Watson have actor William Gillette set the stage in his interpretation of Holmes and the associated clichés.  Most notably, Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce followed the Gillette formula in film.  Lately some of the caricatures have been rehabilitated and the clichés have finally been retired.   See also

[3] Because of this confusion on gun loadings, many guns had the calibers stamped on the barrel, often with specific manufactures recommended or mandated.  Many novices mistake the cartridge attribution information stamped on the barrel or frame for the model of the gun.  The danger of using the wrong loadings has only increased with time as more powerful smokeless cartridges might be used in more fragile black powder frames with dire consequences.

[4] There was an article published in the magazine Black Mask:  John Stanley attended several gatherings of the Baker Street Irregulars and even authored a monograph on the handguns used by Holmes and Watson that appeared in the July 1948 issue of Black Mask.  Vol 31 No 4.  The cover was by Peter Stevens, "Leave Killing to the Cops" by Curtis Cluff.  I haven’t been able to find a copy, but this might lead somebody to put the article on line. 

[5] In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he has Holmes emptying “five barrels into the creature’s flank,” he undoubtedly meant five chambers as I doubt Holmes was carrying an obsolete pepperbox revolver.  In The Musgrave Ritual (1893) Holmes says, ... ”I have always held, too, that pistol practice should distinctly be an open-air pastime; and when Holmes in one of his queer humours would sit in an armchair, with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.”  Again, Boxer is a primer system not a cartridge manufacturer.  Besides it was probably Eley No. 2s he was shooting with a saloon gun shooting CB caps, as anything else would have done more than just pock the wall plaster.

[6] A few additional gun-related quotes written by the good Doctor:
In The Adventure of the Speckled Band, (1892) Holmes suggests, “An Eley's No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel poker's into knots. That and a tooth-brush are, I think, all that we need.”  In The Adventure of the Dying Detective, (1913) Doctor Watson reveals that, “His [Holmes] occasional revolver practice within doors ... made him the very worst tenant in London.”  Apparently he wasn’t evicted for shooting holes in the walls back in The Musgrave Ritual.

[7] CB standing for Conical Bullet and BB for Bulleted Breech, but for our purposes they are about the same.  The term BB bears no relationship to our modern spring guns and airguns firing copper coated iron .177 cal “BBs” we are now familiar (You’ll put your eye out).  The CB cap was developed by Louis-Nicolas Flobert originally in 1845, one of the oldest self contained metallic cartridges, although it contained no powder, it just uses the power of the primer as the propellant.
Links of Interest

Notes on the arming of British police

Notes on saloon, salon, parlor guns and their craze.   
You can also Google the manufacturers Flobert and Remington for examples.