Those we lost in 2017

It’s not just because I’m older that I am reading more of the obituaries than ever in my past. At least, I don’t think so. I seldom read local newspaper obituaries (in part because the delivery here is too sporadic to make it a habit), and I don’t regularly share death notices on social media unless they are of very well known figures. But I do admit I think seem to notice these reports more these days than in years past.

It’s not a fear of death, either, just an awareness that it’s closer than it was and that it comes to us all, great and small. I try to keep in mind the words of Marcus Aurelius, that great Stoic, who wrote among other thoughts in his Meditations, Book VIII:

He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.

Cicero had some pithy things to say about aging and death too, but I’ll leave them for another post.

It strikes me most melancholy when someone among these dead contributed in some memorable way to my own life, to my own culture, upbringing, values, entertainment or beliefs. We have lost their continued wisdom, their continued contributions to our culture; their future output is stilled. For those closest in time to my own age – writers, actors and rock stars many of them – I notice their passing more than I do that of younger artists and musicians. true, few have had a direct, personal impact on me, but they touched me nonetheless.

For no apparent reason other than it struck me to do it, I started looking online for notices of deaths in 2017 only last week, combing through the lists posted online for familiar names. Here are a few that stood out.
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The House on the Borderland

House on the Borderland “But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality [it] would be a classic of the first water.” So said H. P. Lovecraft of the 1908 novel, The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson. But, Lovecraft admitted, the book was also a major influence on his own, later work. And for good reason: it created the ‘unknown horror’ effect that Lovecraft (and later writers) exploited so well.

House on the Borderland is a seminal work in its genre and, despite its age, deserves not to be forgotten by modern readers. Here’s a passage from the book:

And then, as I peered, curiously, a new terror came to me; for away up among the dim peaks to my right, I had descried a vast shape of blackness, giantlike. It grew upon my sight. It had an enormous equine head, with gigantic ears, and seemed to peer steadfastly down into the arena. There was that about the pose that gave me the impression of an eternal watchfulness—of having warded that dismal place, through unknown eternities. Slowly, the monster became plainer to me; and then, suddenly, my gaze sprang from it to something further off and higher among the crags. For a long minute, I gazed, fearfully. I was strangely conscious of something not altogether unfamiliar—as though something stirred in the back of my mind. The thing was black, and had four grotesque arms. The features showed indistinctly, ’round the neck, I made out several light-colored objects. Slowly, the details came to me, and I realized, coldly, that they were skulls. Further down the body was another circling belt, showing less dark against the black trunk. Then, even as I puzzled to know what the thing was, a memory slid into my mind, and straightway, I knew that I was looking at a monstrous representation of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

You can read or download a copy at It’s not very long – just over 50,000 words, and is a fairly quick read.

Hodgson – whose 140th birthday was celebrated by fans last November (the 100th anniversary of his death is in April, 2018) – was prolific in his lifetime, but is an almost-forgotten figure these days. Only two of his novels – the other being The Night Land (1912) – got any significant attention or popular reprints for many decades after his death. Thanks to the internet, digital files and the magic of on-demand publishing, a lot of his work is available online; five of his novels are now downloadable from Gutenberg. And this slowly growing popularity has seen a few publishers reprinting many (maybe even all) of his works.

While still in the shadows compared to other writers, he is read today by fans of classic horror and early scifi. But he’s not anywhere near a popular writer. In part that may be because better, subsequent writers like Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany and Edgar Rice Burroughs captured (and continue to capture) the public’s imagination. Plus, they wrote about the modern, post-war world: with radio, cars, telephones, movies, steamships and the like. They are easier, I suspect, for modern readers to comprehend than those from the Edwardian era.
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A farewell to 2017

Cicero books, and othersTwenty seventeen has a special significance for me, beyond merely another year in the ever-lengthening calendar of my life. I find it difficult, sometimes, to believe I am as old as I am – who, after all, lives this long? I used to think that. Back then, back in my salad days of my misspent youth, fifty was impossibly old. Sixty? Ancient. Beyond that? Methuselah old.

Or perhaps I simply don’t act my age. I still listen to the Beatles and the music of my youth, and play computer games. I still watch Godzilla movies and play tag with my dog. But my joints tell me a different story some days. What is it about time and age that we never see ourselves as others do? That wrinkled old guy in the mirror is someone else, I swear. The real me is killing orcs and invading dungeons online or running through the park with the dog.

As I age, however, I tend to grow more philosophical, and my attitudes about life and death have trended more and more to the Stoics of late. As I write this, a small pile of books by and about Cicero are stacked nearby (hence the picture above, shown with some other books I’m also reading). I haven’t quite found the meaning of life in the Stoics, but I do lean their way. And I sometimes find my own muse too, in reading Cicero. He was passionate about good governance and would have railed against our current, inept council with all his rhetorical might.

Late December marked 35 years since I met Susan. We met in a bar in Toronto, a serendipitous chance event on a cold evening, and we’ve been together ever since, closest of friends and lovers. I am daily surprised she stuck with me through everything, but it speaks to the iron in her soul. And a quirky compassion for a sometimes obsessed, grumpy old fool. More than half our lives spent together.

We both still recall quite clearly our very first dinner date … but that’s another post. We still go for mini-holidays to Toronto every year, visiting the AGO and ROM, Kensington Market and several bookstores. Always we are happy to return, laden as we are with bags of books.

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Guillermo, monsters and me

Tucked away at the bottom of a tall display case in the ‘At Home With Monsters’ exhibit at the AGO is a small collection of seven old, well-thumbed books, all by the 19th century French naturalist and entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre. At the very bottom of the pile, its title almost hidden in the shadows, is The Life of the Spider, first translated into English in 1913, but not translated again until 1971.

The books subtly reflect the importance director and artist Guillermo del Toro places on insects in his works. He calls them “living metaphors” and adds, “They are so alien and so remote and so perfect, but they also are emotionless. They don’t have any human or mammalian instincts.”

I felt a certain thrill at seeing Fabre’s works, especially The Life of the Spider. That very same edition was the first adult book I ever read. I was nine or ten years old, maybe younger, stuck at home with some now-forgotten childhood illness, unable to go to school or out to play. I’m not sure where I got the book. Likely I had taken it out from the local library – probably for some science project or homework – and it was all I had to read that week in bed.

I read it cover to cover, absorbed in the minute details of the behaviour of Fabre’s spiders. It created in me a lifelong appreciation of these arthropods. I must have returned the book after that, because I never saw it again. But it was not forgotten. I was the only one in the gallery bent down, kneeling on the floor to read the book titles. 

I had not expected to see this book in the exhibition – which features the monsters and the fantastic visions of writers, artists and filmmakers that appeal to Guillermo del Toro (including several from his own works) – but the sight gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, and of connection with del Toro. No one else I have known has ever read that book, or even knows of its existence. But del Toro does.
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Legends of Horror

Some of my B-movie collectionsLegends of Horror is the title of one multi-DVD collections of films I own. Fifty films in this package. They’re B-films for the most part (and a few of lesser quality), dating from 1927 (silent) to 1980, mostly in B&W, but those dating from the mid-1960s on are usually colour. The collection title is misleading: it’s really a mix of early horror, mystery and suspense.

It’s one of several similar sets and single DVDs that make up my personal collection of B films (a very few, but far from all, shown in the photo on the right). Most of which are early scifi or monster films (including the entire set of Universal Monster Classics with the original Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, Mummy, Creature From the Black Lagoon and Invisible Man, plus the original sequels, but they are from a different publisher, not shown here), along with numerous detective/suspense and noir films from similar eras.

Several of these films appear in other collections – the companies that compile them have a tendency to reuse titles in collections of different names. This actually has gives some obscure films more circulation that they would have on their own, which isn’t a bad thing.

But as a recent article in Newsweek noted, classic film – B or otherwise – is disappearing online:

…in the vast world of Netflix streaming, 1960 doesn’t exist. There’s one movie from 1961 available to watch (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single film from 1960. It’s like it never happened. There aren’t any movies from 1963 either. Or 1968, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock films on Netflix. No classics from Sergio Leone or François Truffaut. When Debbie Reynolds died last Christmas week, grieving fans had to turn to Amazon Video for Singin’ in the Rain and Susan Slept Here. You could fill a large film studies textbook with what’s not available on Netflix.

This is just one reason I collect: otherwise I’d have no access to watch them. And even if Netflix brings in the A list of classics, I doubt it will offer much if any of the B list:

Netflix’s selection of classic cinema is abominable—and it seems to shrink more every year or so. As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers.

Netflix is doing to classic movies what the internet did to print newspapers, what Walmart did to downtown retail and what Amazon did to bookstores. And there are precious few DVD stores around for me to buy from (none, in fact, in my home town; the closest is 60 km away).

What worries me about the streaming trend most is its impermanence. You can’t share it, hold it, carry it, and if it falls from popularity and gets removed from the cloud, you may never be able to watch it again. Or ever. Who knows if it will even exist in real form in the near future? Even B movies deserve better than a digital death. What if you choose to watch, say, The Thin Man series and they’ve been deleted from publication because no one is buying DVDs any more? What if you discover it’s not on streaming services (these movies – wonderful, all of them – are not, currently). What then? Will these films vanish, the delightful repartee between William Powell and Myrna Loy just become a dry footnote in some database?

I collect my movies to save us all from this frightening future (in the same vein, I collect and scan sheet music from the 1920s-50s so that the music doesn’t get forgotten and lost forever).
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