The Travelling Life

pool_01The thing I don’t like about travelling is, well, travelling. Being somewhere else is fine. A wonderful, expansive experience. I love waking up to the sounds of the ocean, wandering the streets of a foreign town, eating foods in their restaurants, shopping in their markets, listening to their music and moving to the rhythms of their city.

Getting there is, however, overrated. More than that: it’s  dreary. Stressful. Boring. The antithesis of the romantic.

Most of the time travel isn’t anything of the sort. It’s waiting. Hurry up and wait.

You rush from one location to another, one platform, one room, one counter to another, to spend many long minutes, even long hours waiting for something to happen. The shuttle to arrive. The plane to board. The plane to take off. The baggage to arrive. The customs official to wearily stamp your passport.

Lines, waiting rooms, cramped seats, endless paperwork, and being served lukewarm stuff that masquerades – poorly – as food typify the start and end of any vacation.

A week-long vacation ends up as a mere five days: the days at each end being consumed by the slog of travelling forth and then back. The waiting. And the lines. Always the lines.

But then there’s the delicious bit in the middle. That cream filling in the cookie, the jelly in the doughnut. The actual vacation. Now that’s usually worth the crappy stuff at either end. Usually.

One of the problems of modern vacationing, however, is that the best places are filled with other folks, often the same sort of people we’re trying to get away from. People just like you.

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The Swimmer

riverThe swimmer stood on the dock, contemplating the lazy current in the river. The warm spring, followed by the sunny days of early summer, had warmed the water enough to make the crossing less a challenge than a few weeks back, when he had first done it. It was still early enough in the day that the boaters weren’t on the water yet. The morning was calm and quiet, the sky clear and bright.

The perfect time for a swim.

He dropped his robe on the dock beside his towel, and prepared to dive.

“Just a moment!” a voice from the shore interrupted him. He turned to see a man in a dark grey suit striding purposefully along the dock towards him. He carried a briefcase in one hand and was holding a cellphone against his left ear with the other.

“Can I help you?” the swimmer asked, somewhat confused by the stranger’s interruption.

“Busby. George Busby. Municipal policies and planning department.” The stranger stuffed the phone into a pocket, and shoved his hand at the swimmer, who shook it automatically, but hesitantly. “You intending to swim today?”

“I am. Why?”

“Your plan, of course. We need to see your plan.”

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Kanile’a Islander GL6

GL6What a difference two strings make. Late last week, I traded my Jupiter Creek steel-stringed baritone, solid-body uke for one of these Kanile’a nylon-stringed GL6 “guitar-leles” which the company calls a “guilele.”

It’s really a short-scale guitar tuned like a ukulele: a fourth higher. More like a requinto than a uke.

Kanile’a says of the GL6 line:

Our GL6 is a hybrid instrument that we developed bringing the convenience of the ‘ukuleles’ size with the playability that guitar players love. This instrument has our unique Super Tenor body in combination with our 20 inch scale, joined at the body on the 16th fret with 22 frets total.

Now I’m trying to remember all the chords, the fingering, the techniques I used when I played guitar. Boy, what a difference those extra strings make! And BTW, the Islander model isn’t one of the  company’s high-end models: it’s a modestly-priced instrument.

I played guitar from around 1965 until 2008, when I took up ukulele. And that’s all I’ve played since. You get used to the size and scale pretty quickly.

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Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me…

When I'm 64 on the ukeTurning 64, as in the 1967 Beatles’ song, once seemed so distant that it it was as remote as flying cars and jet packs. By the time I reached that age, I thought, we’d have a moon base colony, orbiting hotels as in 2001, A Space Odyssey, and were reaching out to the planets. Maybe even a base on Mars by then

None of which had happened, of course, by the time I reached the magical age in the song, and even today it looks remote. But back then, in the late Sixties, the years ahead seemed so full of potential and excitement that anything was possible. What dreams we had. Too bad our politicians didn’t share them.

I always wondered, hearing the song, why the singer was afraid that his partner, his lover, would abandon him. “Will you still need me/Will you still feed me/When I’m 64?” Was she about to toss him into the street, replace him with a new model (insert your favourite Donald Trump-trophy wife quip here…)?

Sixty four passed me without any such concern.

To be honest, I never thought I’d even reach that age. When you’re 17, you can’t imagine being almost 50 years older. Any more than I can today imagine being 30 years older and doddering about in my nineties. An age to which I fully expect to reach if for no other reason that it may take me that long to finally read all of Ulysses.

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Thank You and Happy New Year

Happy New Year!To all my readers: Thank you, and Happy New Year for 2016. You made 2015 special for me. In this year, my readership more than doubled. I have had more visitors in 2015 than my previous two years combined. Each year, my stats have doubled over the previous year.

Clearly I must be saying something someone likes, because the numbers keep growing.

This year marks a decade blogging for me. I welcome all of you and hope my humble scribblings can continue to amuse, bemuse, inform and entertain you. I may be opinionated, but I try my best to be accurate, informed and honest with you.

Of course, I write mostly for myself, because writing is something I feel compelled to do, but also because I truly enjoy the experience of writing. And since my interests are rather eclectic, I tend to write about many things, many issues, events, ideas and philosophies, often as I encounter them.

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The Tribulations of an Evil Mastermind

Despicable MeSome days it doesn’t pay to be an evil mastermind plotting to destroy the very fabric of our community. Seriously. It’s just too damned hard keeping all the bits and pieces together.

Take today, for example. Here I was, out with my co-conspirator minions at a local restaurant this morning, trying to come up with some new, despicable act to commit and what do they want to talk about? Grand kids. The weather. Snow plow blades. Pickup trucks. The Republican candidates. Movies. Christmas dinners. New Year’s Eve plans. Monty Python skits.

Monty Python skits! How can you seriously concoct a plot to overthrow democracy when someone keeps breaking in with lines from Holy Grail or Life of Brian?  Then they go into the back-and-forth, trading lines from the cheese shop skit or the argument skit.

You just have to wait it out until the laughter dies down because you’re not supposed to bring out the whip in public places.

Worse, they had toast. Toast! Can you imagine how difficult it is to focus their nasty little minds on being evil miscreants when they’re always asking the waitress for more jam or peanut butter? And then you have to repeat everything because they can’t hear you over the crunching noises.

And don’t get me started on the interruptions for coffee refills. What kind of Machiavellian has to get up in mid-plot to go get more coffee? Everyone else has to shut up and wait until he gets back because otherwise you just have to repeat yourself all over again. As if it wasn’t bad enough doing it when they had toast.

I tell you, being an evil mastermind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Then I was supposed to go home and print up a bunch of Evil Manifestos to distribute to the populace, and thus destroy confidence in our local government and foment the populace to revolt against them. But I ran out of printer ink.

Why does the printer never run out the day before you’re ready to run riot in the streets? Couldn’t it give you some sort of warning?

It’s really hard to get the revolution started in Staples where you spend an hour trying to figure out what printer model you own so you can buy the right ink cartridges. I mean, why can’t they give printer models names instead of those stupid code names? PRZ6103ZC2. C3PEO-455DWX. LMNOP7890.

I can’t even remember the manufacturer’s name, let alone all those letters and numbers for the model. Why don’t they make it easy? I’m an aging evil mastermind, not some twenty-something nerdy one. My computer and my car dashboard are already covered with sticky notes so I will remember to pick up milk when I’m out bringing down western society.

By the time you’ve found a sales associate (yeah, that takes a while in itself…) who can figure out which one of the 1,500 possible printer models you have and then tell you the ink’s out of stock until next week, well the glow is pretty much off the revolution by then. And even when they do come in, you have to shell out $100 for the damned things. I sometimes think I should charge people for the manifestos instead of just giving them away. Or just print them without cyan. Who needs cyan ink to ruin the world, anyway?

But then, even if I had the ink and was ready to overthrow the establishment, I have to walk the dogs first. You can’t bring down society when your dogs need to pee. You’d only have a wet spot on the carpet afterwords, if you didn’t do it beforehand.

Mrs. Evil Mastermind does not take well to wet spots on her carpet.

I tell you, I’m getting to old for this stuff. Maybe I’ll trade in my secret decoder ring (necessary for getting all that confidential information translated) and my membership card in the Despicable Me Society and stick to playing the ukulele.

Next time, I’m ordering toast, too.

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Why I Still Watch M*A*S*H

Harry MorganThe news of Harry Morgan’s death at 96, back in 2011, saddened me. I’m at the age when it seems far too many icons of my youth are dying off. Not from some misspent life or accident; from old age. And the process accelerates as I age. I now understand why my grandparents and then parents read the newspaper obituaries. I haven’t quite succumbed to that, but I’m sure the day will come.

No, I’m not being morbid. Or maudlin. I have, I believe, a healthy attitude towards death. Death moves me, sometimes fascinates me (as our collective attitude towards it fascinates me), but it doesn’t frighten me. But when someone dies, it’s a row of dominoes that tumble. We’re all connected, even if only through the TV screen.

Morgan played Colonel Sherman Potter in the latter part of the long-running TV series, M*A*S*H. he brought to the show a maturity and a softer wit. I recall watching him as a harder character in the 1960s’ crime show, Dragnet. I preferred Colonel Potter.

I was reminded of his death only last week, through a Facebook re-post on the anniversary of his passing. That got me thinking about the show, about the era in which it was made, and how it affected me then and later. I dug out my DVDs so I could start watching the series again. (Susan struggles to watch Columbo, a contemporary show from that age that I recently acquired, but loves M*A*S*H).

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Is This Your Bar of Soap?

Firesign Theater

This is side five. Follow in your book and repeat after me as we learn three new words in Turkish:
Towel.
Bath.
Border.

So begins Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, from the first album released by the Firesign Theater, in 1968 (on later albums spelled as Theatre). Everything in it is a misdirection, a sidestep, a pun, an unexpected segue, a joke-within-a-joke, an opening to another place you hadn’t expected to be led to.

May I see your passport please?

Yes, I have it right here. (sounds of busy airport terminal in background)

Uhum. Uhum. Uhum. Look at this. This photograph doesn’t look a bit like you, now, does it sir?

Well, it’s an old picture.

Mmh, mmh. Precisely.

Is there, uh, anything wrong?

Oh no, no, no, no. Would you mind waiting over there, please? Just… leave your bags.

But my passport…

Next please.

Who can forget that journey into the surreal that starts with these words? It’s dark, it’s zany, it’s deep. Very Firesign. Within a few moments they have created a world, and an Orwellian world at that, a world that draws you in.

If you’ve never heard it, then listen to this little snippet:

I had one of those moments, recently, when writing an email to someone, an acquaintance, when a line from the FST just popped into my head. That happens with song lyrics, at times, but less frequency for FST lines than it used to. But it still does; lines that just float to the surface unbidden. Dr. Benway. Nick Danger. Ralph Spoilsport. Antelope Freeway, one half mile…

I just tossed it in, a throwaway in my letter. And to my surprise, in his response, he noted he recognized the source. So there are still some of us left out there who remember.

That sent me scampering through my library to look for The Big Book of Plays, the scripts of the first few FST albums, a book which I once owned. Apparently not any longer. Lent to someone, I suppose, years ago, and it was never returned.

I spent some time looking to buy another online only to discover it has been reprinted with another FST book under the title Marching to Shibboleth.

Of course, I had to order a copy.

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The Secret to Good Writing

The urge to writeSpoiler alert: the secret to writing well is…. (insert drum roll)... writing. Writing a lot. Every day. Every possible minute you can spare. Writing and writing more and then writing even more. But doing so within a pre-specified limit. Oops…

Now we all know that, aside from some local bloggers and EB columnists, most of us get better the more we practice a thing. Writing – aside from the aforementioned inept exceptions – included.

It means not vegging in front of the TV all night, or trolling the Net for images of the Kardashian’s oversized ass, or scrolling through Facebook streams. It means writing. Sitting down and writing instead of doing a lot of less meaningful but pleasantly mind-numbing things.

That, in brief, is the message in a recent article in The Guardian. Author Oliver Burkeman distills this from his reading of How Writers Journey To Comfort And Fluency, an apparently highly over-priced book by Robert Boice (the reviewer didn’t check to see if Boice had re-packaged his book under a less-expensive format). As Burkeman puts it,

The kernel of Boice’s advice, based on writing workshops conducted with struggling academics, isn’t merely old. It’s the oldest in the world: write, every weekday, in brief scheduled sessions, as short as 10 minutes at first, then getting longer. Reading that, I nearly flung my £68 book across the room in impatience. But that wouldn’t surprise Boice. Because impatience, for him, is a huge part of why writing causes so much grief.

As the owner of a healthy library of books on writing and grammar, and as someone who writes every day, as if driven by compulsion, I can attest to his frustration. Far too many of these self-described experts blather on about what is basically a simple process, and make it both more complex and mystical than it really is: write, write some more, then write even more.

So far, Boice has that right. But he strays from the message.

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1914: My Grandfathers’ Year

War is announced in London

As I read further into Max Hastings’ book, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, I wondered, as I have done in the past when reading similar books about that time, what my grandfathers must have felt when that war broke out.

What it meant to them and their worldview, and to their imagined futures, both at the start of the war, and then at the end, after four years of struggle, of deprivation, of fighting.

What was it like to finally come home? What did they think, then, of the world? Of their leaders? Of their own nationalism? Of the results? Was it worth the years? Was it worth the cost of their youth, their innocence? Did the end justify the means?

I’ve looked at the photographs taken then, but they only give me a generic appreciation, a two-dimensional view. A book in my library, Collier’s Photographic History of the European War (1916) has photographs taken during the first two years of the war, of the leaders, the soldiers, of the ruined cities, of the armies, but while they fascinate me, none really convey the sense of horror, desperation, and terror that the war engendered.*

What did my grandfathers feel? How did they sleep? Did they dream of bombs and artillery shells? What did their wives at home think? Was every passing day without news a good dayor a reason to worry more? Did they sit alone in the evening as the sky darkened and wonder where their young husbands were? Did they imagine them dead?

Both my grandfathers were young men, in their mid-20s in August, 1914. It was expected that they would join the war. That’s what patriotic young men did. Duty to king and country. And, although I don’t know the exact dates they enlisted, both men did.

I only know my grandfather in England signed up in Oldham or MAnchester, and went to war in Egypt and Palestine. Across the ocean, my grandfather in Canada went aboard the Niobe in Halifax, to patrol the Atlantic. They survived the war, both of them, and came home intact. Millions didn’t.

Both had grown to manhood in a period of great change and upheaval in the previous two decades: technology, industry, politics, medicine and science all went through transformations that changed the way people did and perceived things. It’s hard to imagine now, but the technological changes in the years before WWI were earth-shaking. They transformed everything and everyone they touched.

But so did society change. Old orders were challenged. New politics emerged. New ideas often expressed themselves in dramatic and violent ways, polarizing everyone involved.

There was, for the first time, a shared popular culture: theirs was the first generation raised under the influence of the phonograph. It’s hard for us, more than a century later with our iTunes and iPods and streaming media, to imagine what impact that one device had on culture and society, but it was huge in their day. It created mass – pop – culture.

It was only a couple of decades before their birth that submarine telegraph cables linked the world so messages could be transmitted instantaneously. That changed the way people saw the news, therefore their world picture. News that once took weeks, even months to travel by post now took seconds. Events that took place around the globe were no longer distant in both time and geography. They were immediate. And immediacy helped propel the war.

Theirs was also the first generation to grow up with the telephone. While still limited in range when they left for war, it would within their lives reach from across town to across continents and then overseas.

In November 1915, the one millionth car rolled of the Ford assembly line. That is just one car company of several in America at the time, and it had been in business only a dozen years by then. The automobile was rapidly changing social and community life, changing the way people travelled and worked. It de-isolated people from their surroundings.

So did the airplane. The short flight at Kitty Hawk had taken place the same year Ford opened his factory: 1903. While commercial air travel was still years away, the airplane fired imaginations and would play an important role in the war.

Einstein’s remarkable insights into the cosmos were forcing a re-evaluation of how the universe worked, how it was structured. New forms of literature, of art, of music, poetry and even dance flooded popular culture.

Nothing seemed solid. Everything was shifting, in flux. Old rules, old ideas were being overthrown and replaced with the new. It seemed an exciting time, but also a time when everything has become unstuck, unanchored from its past. Tradition fell prey to novelty.

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Read, Re-read, Repeat

Master and MargaritaI’m currently re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy novel of Soviet life under Stalin, The Master and Margarita. Since this is actually a newer translation than the original one I read many years ago, I’m not sure it properly qualifies as “re-reading.” However, for me, re-reading a novel is uncommon.

I seldom have the time to re-read, because my current reading list never dwindles (in fact it grows as I continue to add books to my library). Plus my interests and not static: I constantly seek to learn new things.*

I always have a dozen books on the go, piled beside my bed in an unruly assortment. Most of these are nonfiction: history, politics, philosophy, science and style guides in particular.

Among that pile are books about books, including a newcomer I added a week or so ago: Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. It’s a book about the joys of re-reading science fiction and fantasy.

I tend not to read such collections of reviews, but when I glanced through her pieces while standing in the bookstore, I was impressed by not only how many authors and titles she has read, but on how many I didn’t know.

I’ve always thought of myself as a scifi buff with a fair bit of background knowledge and reading (not, I’ll admit, as much about fantasy). But Walton’s reading list makes me an amateur who has barely scratched the surface. There are many whose names I recognize, and some works I’ve read, but among the dozens of titles and authors are far too many with which I have little knowledge, let alone have read.

And Walton is re-reading them, That simply flabbergasts me. I’ve always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but she outstrips me as rapidly as a motorcycle passes a pedestrian on a highway.

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In Praise of Audio Books

Audio booksAlthough I had listened to them in the past, I really discovered the joys of audio books several years ago, when my 92-year-old father entered hospital for his final months. As I travelled to and from the city frequently that summer, audio books kept me entertained and my mind from dwelling on the more serious questions of his health and mortality.

Travelling to Toronto to visit my mother in her nursing home, for several years after he passed away, often became a trip with audio books, too. Although I have always been an avid and voracious reader, CD recordings soon found a place in my library alongside the printed books. And, this year, her 95th, as I drove to and from the city, I again found them an equal source of distracting comfort.

Today, as I walk my dogs, I listen to audio books still. Sophie’s 14; old and slow, a little stiff, and she pokes along, stopping frequently to sniff. Listening keeps me from becoming impatient with her glacial pace. Some days I actually appreciate her slowness more because I get to finish a chapter.

Reading and hearing a story create quite different responses in the audience. A well-read story creates a remarkable emotional reaction in the listener in a way that reading the same book doesn’t. That, of course, is why radio shows were so popular before TV pretty much wiped them out. But I grew up in the last period of the era of great radio dramas and remember listening to them with fondness. I still get a kick out of them.

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Digging and dying

MinecraftAbout an hour after I started playing Minecraft for the very first time, I died. As game experiences goes, that sucked. Not exactly a “thanks for your purchase” ingame welcoming message from Mojang

Not that I’m unaccustomed to dying. In most computer games I’ve died: Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, World of Tanks, World of Warcraft, Ghost Recon, Diablo, Borderlands, Left 4 Dead, even in Civilization. Dying is part of gaming.* But most of the time, I know why. Sure, I may not have seen the sniper who nailed me from a distance, or the elite dragon that snuck up on me from above, but I understand why I died.

Not this time. It probably had a reason but it sure seemed like an arbitrary process. I had survived a short while, built a small shelter in which to hide a night, gathered a few resources, made a craft table and taken my first steps crafting a very few items – planks, sticks, slabs and a precious wooden shovel. It was all tickety-boo, or so it seemed.

About an hour after I started, I died while climbing a hill. Don’t know why. I wasn’t attacked. Didn’t fall. Was it lack of food or sleep? My political views? An in-game virus? All I know is that one minute I’m merrily whacking stones, and the next I’m dead.

That kinda sums it all up, doesn’t it? Be on my gravestone, if I have one: He died. Didn’t know why. Well, after reading a bit online, my first guess is starvation. Which I don’t think I should have suffered, given that my character was ingame for only perhaps three virtual days. A week, 10 days, maybe I’d understand.

Damn, I wish it came with a manual. There are, of course, books you can buy… but for now I’m referring to online guides (some of which are very good… like this one)

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Server upgrade coming

Sometime in the next two weeks, I will be amalgamating servers for the several sites I manage and conflating them onto one, new and (I hope) faster and more efficient server. There may be some downtime while the files and databases migrate, like virtual birds, to their new home.

I hope that the digital gods of server migration allow my moves to go smoothly. I would sacrifice a virtual dove to propitiate them, if I could only find their virtual altar… would that I were the digital Odysseus…

For most users, it will, I expect, be but a momentary blip in the service, a temporary lapse of rant soon reconstructed. No more than a couple of hours of downtime while the ether is busy with transient bytes flitting hither and yon. My biggest concern is the Blue Agave forum which operates on an Invision system… the transition to the current servers wasn’t all that smooth when I moved a few years back. But we’ll see how it evolves… I might need the aid of Invision’s tech team, too…. but that should not concern you.

If things don’t go smoothly, and it takes longer than expected, it may be the result my clumsy handling of the tools (while still technically inclined, my edge has, I admit, lost some of its crispness as I age). Or it may be some deeper, larger problem that requires tech support to save me from myself and the quicksand of SQL content.

I can migrate the static files easily enough, but depend somewhat on online tools to make the transition for the blog and WordPress databases. And then there’s all that PHP stuff…

Anyway, things may appear and disappear, and off error pages emerge, but take heart that I am not vanished from the network, merely taking the high road to the deep north, as Basho did, but of course virtually, and expecting to return momentarily. Should my site appear gone, take heart that it has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but merely retired momentarily to a far, far better place…. and will reappear when the digital stars align.

Refresh, refresh, refresh and return and it will all be made clear. I hope. If not…. well, I can always start afresh.

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The Missing Frankenstein Movies

Legacy Collection: FrankensteinI was worried when I saw a new package for the Frankenstein films in WalMart recently. Labelled the “Complete Legacy Collection,” it offered eight original films on the Frankenstein theme, from 1931 to 1948. I snapped it up and read the back. I had to have it. (I always check the films they bring in pre-Halloween, in case they have any classics I don’t yet have….)

Oh oh, I said to myself as I read the cover. I had purchased all of the Legacy monster movie collections a few years back (they were first released in 2004)  and my set of Frankenstein movies had only five films in it. This one had Three More Monster Films! True, one of them as Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein, but even if it was a comedy, it did include some of the great stars (Lugosi, Chaney and Glenn Strange, who replaced Karloff as the monster in later films of the series).

If the entire series had been re-released with additional films in each set, I thought to myself as I stood there, it mean I would have to buy all the sets all over again. Susan wouldn’t be happy. I put the box into the cart, and looked for the others. Fortunately for my wallet, there were none. Yet.

A little reading online made me realize this was simply a repackaging of the entire 30-film one-box collection that had been released in late 2014. Universal has repackaged the films in several versions with varying numbers of movies since the first release, from four to 30 in each. Some even have the 1943 Phantom of the Opera movie, one of the few Universal horror of that era titles I lack.

The Legacy Collection first packaged 14 films from the original Frankenstein, Wolfman and Dracula series made by Universal, in three boxed sets. The originals star the actors who would become famous for their roles in the first of them, all shot in the early 1930s: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. The sequels didn’t always include the original actors, however (and some of the replacement actors – like John Carradine as Dracula – are poor choices). But these are the films I treasure.

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