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Author Archive

Casting the Runes

October 9, 2015 | by

From Night of the Demon, a 1957 film loosely based on M. R. James’s “Casting the Runes.”

I love being read to. I could pretend it’s because it takes my mind away when I have a migraine or because it allows one to appreciate the aural poetry of writing—and that would be partially true. But the appeal is more elemental, more regressive. When you’re being read to, you’re being taken care of.

Perhaps by the same token, something scary can be magnified in the hearing. Ghost stories are meant to be told orally, after all, and when you are listening to something recorded, you have the option of doing so in the dark. When October comes, no matter if it’s more Indian summer than crisp fall, I want nothing so much as the occult and creepy. And so I walk through the city or work in the kitchen or stand on line at the bank, with M. R. James playing in my ears. Read More »

Back Away Slowly

October 8, 2015 | by

A woman diagnosed as suffering from hilarious mania. Color lithograph, 1892. Image via Wellcome

Contrary to popular wisdom, in my experience many of the best comebacks are not cutting. L’esprit d’escalier is all well and good, but take it from me, zingers aren’t what they’re cracked up to be: when you grow up in a family that fights almost exclusively below the belt, you learn to wound early, and also that the act of attacking leaves you feeling bad, not triumphant. I’ll never forget being snapped at by an angry customer in a deli as a small child. “Ignore her, Sades,” my dad said loudly. “She’s an unhappy, lonely person with no one in her life who cares about her.” I’ve forgotten her expression of shocked misery; I know that only from my dad’s rueful telling. Read More »

Ham on Rye

October 7, 2015 | by

John Barrymore in 1920.

Some years ago, a friend who works in real estate let me see the Greenwich Village apartment that had belonged to John Barrymore; I had read about it and was thrilled to see the interior. Today its rent is beyond the reach of most mortals, but even when Barrymore moved there, in 1917, the building had a distinct bohemian chic—it had been remodeled by the architect Josephine Wright Chapman. Still, the nineteenth-century row house was modest by matinee-idol standards. Barrymore took the place while he was appearing on Broadway in Hamlet. He was not yet considered tragic or ridiculous or a parody of himself, though he was on the way.

To the modern eye, the light-filled studio with its window seat, skylight, and fireplace are magical enough, even with a tiny bedroom and no real kitchen—indeed, this sort of adds to the charm. Up a narrow ladder, on the roof, was a hut that Barrymore had built: a single weatherproofed room with a vaulted ceiling. The playwright Paul Rudnick rented the studio in the 1980s, and as he wrote in the New Yorker, he was “smitten.” Read More »

Mother Approved

October 6, 2015 | by

Only the best for my boy: the actress Helen Twelvetrees and her son, Jack Woody, in Sydney circa 1936.

I used to have a superpower. I never told anyone, of course—that’s the rule with powers—and in the grand tradition, it was a mixed blessing. It was this: mothers loved me.

It’s true. Mothers of all kinds wanted me to date their sons. Hell, they wanted me to marry them. Not shockingly, the actual sons in question were less jazzed about the prospect. It seemed like the very qualities that rendered me totally unsuitable to boys my own age—my good manners, my bookishness, my lack of any adult sexiness, even my runty size—were the same things that drew their mothers like catnip. Read More »

Nonsense Verse

October 5, 2015 | by

West Frisian Alice.

“A language is not complete if there are no translations of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Alice in Wonderland,” the translator Tiny Mulder wrote in 1962. Would that it were so easy! The Grolier Club’s current exhibition is called “Alice in a World of Wonderlands,” and its subject is Alice in Wonderland in translation, on the occasion of the book’s 150th anniversary. Like all the Grolier’s shows, it is free to the public. And at 140 translations—and a bevy of very different Alices—it’s well worth a visit. 

There are Braille editions and Frisian editions and Pakistani editions. We see Alice’s adventures rendered in Farsi, in Uyghur, in Hebrew, and in Jèrriais, a Norman language spoken in some of the Channel Islands. Naturally, Carroll’s own Nyctographic language (invented for Alice) is represented, too. Read More »

Close Harmony

October 2, 2015 | by


By 1967, the Everly Brothers’ career was on the wane, their many hits a distant memory. Both Don and Phil Everly were addicted to amphetamines, and their relationship was (perhaps not incidentally) fraying. Although some of their later work is great—Roots is really beautiful—their glory days were decisively behind them, and it showed. Take “Bowling Green”—written by their bassist, it was their last song to chart for seventeen years. There are hints of desperation about the generic, sixties-style studio production, with its nods to the ethereal trends of the moment. The lyrics are kind of silly. Read More »