Midwinter Chills: Ghastly Ghosts and Comical Phantoms

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It’s the middle of winter in Melbourne and there have been icy winds, frosts and dull days. A good time for ghost stories as these are so much more enjoyable when it’s dark and cold. Reading a modern ghost story has brought back memories of the classic old spooky tales, which I have always loved. Not all are serious and a bit of humor is needed when it is chilly. These stories stimulate the imagination and have led to endless interpretations of this intangible world.

Belief in the supernatural has provided plenty of material for artists and writers over the centuries. Shakespeare gives a chilling account of a ghostly apparition in the form of Hamlet’s murdered father, which has given visual artists inspiration for some beautiful illustration.

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In the 19th century ghost stories were very popular. They were so much more convincing at a time without electric light. In winter one could imagine terrible spectres lurking in the dark of night. Some of the stories are quite creepy, like those by the Irish author, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, who wrote some truly disturbing tales. A couple about haunted houses, like An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Anger Street (1851) and An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, are full of terrible apparitions and shadowy figures on the walls (click on titles to read stories). Read these late at night when the wind is howling for full effect.

Ghostly legends can also be very funny. The Ingoldsby Legends (1840) by Thomas Ingoldsby (Rev Richard Harris Barham) contains many humorous stories and poems about ghosts. Tales such as The Spectre of Tappington; The Ghost; The Legend of Hamilton Tighe; and The Dead Drummer are accompanied by quirky black and white illustrations (click on titles to read stories), which include skeletal spectres, headless figures and phantoms done by well-know artists of the time. These stories are wonderful parodies of ghostly folklore.

Another writer and illustrator who dealt with ghosts in a humorous way was W S Gilbert, the lyricist of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta fame. His collection of poems, Fifty “Bab” Ballads (1884) contains a nonsensical poem that I have included below called The Ghost, the Gallant, the Gael and the Goblin, complete with Gilbert’s (Bab) delightful drawings. It’s about competitive haunting that does not go to plan. A very quaint story with the witty use of words you would expect from the man who wrote, “I am the very model of a modern major-general, I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral…etc.

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Probably the most famous ghost story of the 1900s is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. We have a copy from the 1890s that has drawings by Fred Barnard, who was one of the illustrators of Dickens works. The grotesque depiction of Marley’s ghost became the prototype for many film versions of the tale. Michael Hordern as the tormented Marley in the 1951 version of Scrooge starring Alistair Sim, seems to have stepped out of the illustration. Below is a colourized version of the scene.

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The magic of film has made it possible to depict transparent ghosts and ghastly hauntings. From the earliest days of film we can see attempts to bring the spectral world alive for the viewer often with unintentionally hilarious results, as for example in George Melies The Haunted Castle, 1896.

Since then there have been some very terrifying movies, such as The Haunting (1963), with its horrifying haunted house. You would not want to watch this one alone on a dark winters night. It uses sound to a frightening degree (warning: even the trailer is really chilling). Often films that leave much to the imagination are scarier than those with lots of special effects because of the mystery.

There have also been many entertaining comedy films about ghosts, such as Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennet, a hilarious story about a dead married couple haunting a crusty old bachelor that lead to some ridiculous situations.

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Plains of the Darling, NSW, detail by Edward Officer

In Australia there are old bush ballads about ghosts, such as the swagman who haunts the billabong in Waltzing Matilda (Matilda was his swag, not a woman). Like Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the idea of a ghostly horseman riding through the countryside has also peaked Australian writer’s imaginations. One of my favorites is the poem Rafferty Rides Again (1940) by Thomas V Tierney about a bushranger’s ghost that is seen riding in the bush on moonlit nights. As it is still in copyright click on title for a link to the poem. The song Ghost Riders in the Sky is in this tradition and Johnny Cash does a great version.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, in wintertime it is fun to read or watch spooky stories, especially when you are inside near a fire or heater and you know you can turn up the lights any time you like.

And what better way to end this post than with Australia’s Kransky Sisters, singing Talking Heads Psycho Killer as only they can.

Kat

Nonsense Poems, Funny Pictures and Laughter

I was looking at some classic old humorous books from the 19th and early 20th centuries and found that, although written and illustrated at least 100 years ago, they still are funny and make me laugh. Humor that is based on topical events seems more dated than that which deals with universal themes and one can learn a lot from these inspiring writers and artists. I especially like the nonsense poems and their accompanying illustrations and I thought I would share some of these delightful pieces for those who may be unfamiliar with these works.

One thing that I noticed was there seemed to be an obsession with bizarre noses in a couple of the books. English artist and writer, Edward Lear (1812-1888), who popularized the limerick and nonsense songs and poems that were published in his Books of Nonsense, was especially fond of exaggerated noses. There were a number of limericks devoted to this part of the anatomy and here are a couple of my favorites.

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Lear’s ink drawings are pure whimsy. He was a landscape painter and illustrated books of natural history and his free and imaginative ink drawings are in complete contrast. Yet there is something very tangible about those birds sitting on a nose and Lear’s poems and “sight gags” still have great appeal.

The other nose related reference occurs in American writer Max Adler’s (Charles Heber Clark 1841-1915) Out of the Hurley-Burly or Life in an Odd Corner (1874). We have the Australian edition published by E W Cole (188?). The book is a portrait of Clark’s life in Conshohocken, PA, disguised as fiction and is filled with the comic illustrations of A B Frost. There are also some funny poems. The following Tim Keyser’s Nose tells a wonderfully ridiculous story that is still enjoyable today.

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From noses we move onto another American writer’s take on mythological creatures. Artist Oliver Herford (1863-1935) wrote witty and humorous poetry. We have a first edition copy of The Mythological Zoo (1912) that came from a relative and I recently had a good look at the book. The poems, although written over 100 years ago are still a lot of fun, together with Herford’s amusing illustrations. I have included a couple of poems that show his clever turn of phrase and a modern view of some ancient beasts.

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Every summer someone will still say the annoying words in the last line of The Salamander. Herford had a sharp wit and has been compared with Oscar Wild, as someone who also made very incisive quips.

Cartoons can sometimes become dated when an audience can no longer relate to the subject matter. If it deals with obsolete attitudes or long forgotten events the humor is often lost. Universal themes about basic human nature are less likely to date. These types of cartoons can be found in Melba’s Gift Book (1915), instigated by opera singer Dame Nellie Melba to raise money for The Belgium Relief Fund during WWI and full of works by Australian artists and writers. I’ve singled out a couple of the cartoons that deal with human nature in an amusing way.

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With a change of clothing those partygoers could be a modern couple and procrastination is still a problem for creative people. Everyone needs a nagging pet like that cat.

Sticking with the theme of funny pictures we can still laugh at the visual and physical antics of such comedic masters like Charlie Chaplin in old films.  Chaplin’s little tramp trapped in a sleeping lion’s cage is a hilarious example.  Classic “man out of his comfort zone,” that creates great comedy.

Humorous Music is a bit more difficult. Some old comedy songs just don’t transfer to the present day but there are others that have travelled better. For example Ragtime Cowboy Joe was first recorded in 1912 by Bob Roberts, done again over the years by various performers, including a The Chipmunks version in 1959 and has been given the Muppets treatment. It is still a popular song for the ukulele. I think this a lot to do with the catchy turn of phrase and crazy images it brings to the mind. And it’s a cowboy song.

As well as the feel good value of old humorous works, studying these also provide timeless clues about the crafting of words and visual art for its comic effect. To make others laugh is a wonderful aim. We all need a bit of nonsense in our lives.

Kat

When You Need To Laugh

These days we need to laugh more than ever.  When the state of the world starts to get me down I go out of my way to find something that will make me laugh and feel better.  Then I can get on with creative things in a much better mood.

Yesterday there was a hilarious post on The Age Newspaper website.  It has a game where you can type in your own name or any other and it will be Spicer-ized.  For example, I typed in Mother Teresa and the Spicer version was “Mothershead Tereza”; William Shakespeare became Willibald Shaky; Richard Nixon became Richelieu No-Nose; Alec Baldwin became Aledore Balestrero.  You get the idea. Lot’s of fun at Sean Spicer’s expense.  Have a go.  Here is the link – Spicer-ize My Name

Another fun on-line pursuit is the Oracle of Bacon.  This has been going since 1999 and started as a university study into the concept of “Six Degrees of Separation.”  You type in any actor’s name and it will tell you how they are connected and how many degrees they are from Kevin Bacon, who has been in so many films and TV shows he was chosen as the test subject.  I typed in Alicia Vikander and she is only two degrees from Kevin.  Try and beat the system with obscure actors.  It is very difficult as he has links in film all over the world.  You might even find yourself connected.

Searching You Tube for comedy videos is a good way to get you laughing.  Comedians are great value.  Amongst the many wonderful choices, I love looking at ones with Dame Edna (aka Barry Humphries).  Ellie and I went to one of his farewell shows in Melbourne in 2012. Dame Edna is such an Australian Icon that it is good that we can still laugh at her antics on You Tube.  Those in the know would never sit in the front few rows to prevent becoming a a participant in the show.  Here is a performance she did in Montreal in 2005.  Part of the enjoyment of Dame Edna’s sharp wit was that, while you felt sympathy for a hapless audience victim, you were glad it wasn’t you.

Political satire can certainly turn around a depressing situation.  Australian satirist Huw Parkinson, of the scarily prophetic “Winter is Trumping” Game of Thrones video parody, continues to make us laugh at our political leaders.  His recent Trumpocalypse Now video starring Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and “you know who” is a hoot. Watch out for a young Harrison Ford in a minor role.

Musical comedy performances are also good for stimulating laughter.  The Australian band Axis of Awesome write and perform hilarious songs poking fun at contemporary song writing and modern culture.  One of my favorites is How to Write a Love Song, which deals with all the clichés in love songs, a must to avoid if you write songs.  Yes and one of them does look like Jack Black.

I know that these pursuits are silly time wasters, but when you need a good laugh, a bit of fun web surfing at lunchtime or in the evening can release those endorphins and give you a boost.

Keep laughing,

Kat