FROM HELL (1999-ish)

Dovetailing with the prior post about Julia Wertz’s TENEMENTS, TOWERS & TRASH, here’s Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s vastly detailed exploration of late-19th century London through the eyes of detectives, prostitutes, and one serial killer.

I’m not going to lie: I have been to Whitechapel. I’ve attended one of the many Ripper tours. I’m really not into that sort of thing — true crime doesn’t hold much of an allure for me — but I’ve found off-beat tours are often the best ways to discover the delights of an unfamiliar land. (If you’re ever in New Orleans, definitely indulge yourself in one of their many tours, especially those that feature cemeteries!)

FROM HELL is an astounding achievement. As Alan Moore often does, he manages to intertwine the personal with the political, the social, and the spiritual. While FROM HELL is, at the heart of it, a tale of a disturbed person who murdered more than a few prostitutes and also about those tasked to attempt to bring him to justice, it’s mostly about London itself.

I first read FROM HELL while in London — I still have a copy of the map I picked up at the Imperial War Museum that I used as a bookmark — and I cannot recommend a better guidebook to the city apart from an A-to-Zed map. It made me understand and see and pay attention to the city so much more than I would have without it. It imbues so much with Campbell’s visual details and focus on landmarks, often without calling it out in the text itself.

One major example is their detailing of Cleopatra’s Needle, which plays a bit of a role in the book, and whose significance would have mostly been lost on me if I hadn’t read this graphic novel.

Like I said with TENEMENTS, TOWERS & TRASH, illustrated works are astounding guiding compasses when you’re on unknown soil or concrete. Rick Steves is great and all, but if you’re a misfit, if you bristle at being called a tourist, these are the roadmaps you’re looking for.

I’ll note that there is a FROM HELL COMPANION, which is a deep dive into, well, FROM HELL, from both Moore and Campbell. It’s informative, but it is mostly text and copies of scripts and I find the original work to be a better guide; the companion sketches more into it, but will not help you navigate the city.

(Lastly: skip the film.)


(Netflix) Back when I was a pre-teen, I had a casual friend who absolutely knew how to make me laugh. The jokes were puerile — again, I was a youth and he was slightly older — but he told them in such a rapid-fire way that within a few minutes I was doubled-over in laughter, absolutely rolling on the ground, covered in dirt.

Again, they weren’t good jokes, but they endlessly built up, which actually served to be more memorable in the long run. (One tries to forget that too much laughter literally inflicts pain — which causes a perverse feedback loop for me — but you don’t. Not really.)

Over the years, I’ve found that sort of comedy to be more of an enigma than anything else. THE JERK accomplished it, for sure — one of the greatest times of my life was seeing it at Los Angeles’ TCL and being tongue-tied meeting Carl Reiner. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, well, the first two seasons at least. It’s more of a vaudevillian sense of humor — make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh! (to quote SINGING IN THE RAIN) — but when that work is firing on all cylinders, it’s like nothing else. To be crass: it culminates to a mind-blowing comedic orgasm that you shakily walk away from.

And now we have CUNK ON EARTH, the latest from Charlie Brooker (BRASS EYE, and oh, a little dystopian show named BLACK MIRROR you may have heard of.) It’s basically ‘What if we had an insta-dumb Lucy Worsley navigating us through history?’ While the character has been around in Brooker’s WEEKLY WIPE and also featured in CUNK ON BRITAIN, this was my first exposure to her.

I’ll note: this is a very specific show. If you love the humor of Kate Beaton, if you love nerdy historical and literary comedy, if you’ve even entertained the idea of watching BLACKADDER, this show will come close to pleasurely killing you. The joke ratio is off of the fucking charts. Not a single word or glance or motion is wasted and, even better, it all builds up to character lore. It’s amazing — if you’re a nerd.

I had to cut myself off after three episodes, at least for the time being. I love to laugh, but I was laughing far too much. That said, I can’t think of a better way to endorse a series than ‘I watched it until it made my sides ache and then bleed.’ It’s a brilliant work, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Also, as someone with several prominent moles, I love how she rocks hers.


GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL is a self-reflexive work of sorts: penned by POPULAR HOME magazine editor Robert Dougherty, it’s a recounting of “The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell”, straight from her mouth, according to Robert.

Dirty Helen Cromwell (Helen, from here on forth), was — for some time — a Milwaukee fixture from the Prohibition age. While she was reluctant to lay down roots anywhere, she did find a home in Milwaukee with her boozy outpost THE SUN FLOWER INN, which is where Robert first met Helen.

What follows is Robert jotting down Helen recalling a good forty years of ‘good times’ as a self-proclaimed ‘woman of pleasure’. In other words: a sex worker. There’s a moment where she wishes that the term ‘call girl’ was popular in her time.

The tales recalled in GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL are certainly those of a willful, self-possessed woman, one who isn’t a skin-flint, but values what remains in one’s pocket, while still living a remarkable life, one the that included all sorts of fashionable dovetailing, as well as shoulder-rubbing with Al Capone.

“My advice is not to accept initiations to these cruises if you aren’t prepared for certain eventualities.”

That’s about as dark as Helen deigned herself to deal with, but as one dives deeper into GOOD TIME PARTY GIRL and reads about the litany of dead husbands, and the brave face she plastered on, the harder the read becomes. This is a memoir/auto-bio where the absence of details are more damning than the inclusion; you can almost feel the hurt in certain eras of hers that she glosses over, ambiguous hurt that hits harder than when she discusses the death of one of her several husbands.

That said, yes, you do have to read in-between the lines for that. Otherwise, it’s a bold, brash tale of a bold and brash and gregariously singular woman who made her place in Milwaukee. That alone is reason enough to read her tale.



(Theatre/YouTube) Another theatre production, but this one is far more accessible, as there’s an original cast album and a number of clips and performances available on YouTube. As you might surmise from the title, it’s a rock opera with a different take on the legend of Lizzie Borden, authored by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt. The official website describes it as so:

“LIZZIE is four women fronting a six-piece rock band.

“LIZZIE is Rage! Sex! Betrayal! BLOODY MURDER!

“LIZZIE is American mythology set to a blistering rock score with a sound owing less to Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber than to BIKINI KILL, the RUNAWAYS, and HEART.”

So, yeah, that ticks all of my boxes, and hopefully yours too.

The production I saw was executed by Chicago’s Firebrand Theatre who are an “equity musical theatre company committed to employing and empowering women on and off the stage” and it was a goddamn blast. I can’t wait to see another of their offerings, but definitely jump at the chance to catch any production of it, if it hits your area.

HOUSE OF BORDEN (one of my favorite renditions of my favorite number, but I’m not sure why they had one of them play two parts):

What may be my new favorite YouTube theatre trailer, for what looks to have been a brilliant Canadian production (although it does untether the actors from their mics, which is not in line with prior productions):

Lastly, every time I rediscover this musical, I can’t help but endlessly re-listen to it.


(Theatre) I rarely write about theatre because it’s so niche, privileged (as in: expensive and caters to those who can afford it) and ephemeral, but this piece has stuck with me. THE DROWNING GIRLS is a stageplay from Canadian playwrights Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson, and Daniela Vlaskalic, based on the actions of real-life Victorian George Joseph Smith who drowns three older women he recently married in their bathtub, mostly for profit and, probably also: sadism. In other words: a cautionary ghost short for the women in the audience, just like so many horror tales.

While most of the productions follow the same simple staging — three bathtubs, three women in nightgowns, mostly soaking wet for 70 minutes straight — I’m sure they all vacillate wildly in tone. (After all, that’s one of the fascinating parts about theatre.) The production I saw was helmed by Madeline Keller and was stunning and powerful and vengeful.

No matter the production, I think it’s interesting enough to chance it.

GOTHIC (1986)

(Plex/tubi/VOD/Vudu) This is the predictable final entry in a three-part series of recommendations regarding films about Mary Shelley. It is, of course, Ken Russell’s GOTHIC (1985). Again, I’m no Mary Shelley scholar, and — given this final entry — it should be obvious that I have no interest in discussing the veracity of the portrayal of these real-life persons. (I simply don’t have the knowledge, but I don’t begrudge those that do.)

While GOTHIC is, on the surface, about the storytelling night between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire, it’s primarily concerned with Mary and her life and her way of coping with this foursome, which becomes heightened via what one surmises is a fever dream.

GOTHIC is essentially fan-fiction, occasionally slash-fiction and, surprisingly, posits Mary as, for all intents and purposes, the Final Girl, with Lord Byron being the executor of the madness they endure. (Or not; there are many ways you can read it, but that’s my interpretation.)

There’s a lot to unpack in this film, far more than I can do justice to in a simple post, so I’ll just note a few highlights and leave it at that:

  • As usual, Russell has a ton of visual anachronisms, one of the boldest being the hexagonal ceiling molding designs, which are then mirrored when Mary finds herself as a prisoner.
  • It portrays Mary as someone who doesn’t buy into Percy’s ‘free love’, and touches on her problematic pregnancies.
  • I just happened to be going about this three-part project as I was reading MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAIN SAWS, which spends a significant amount of time talking about horror films’ handling of eyes, then Percy seeing nipples as eyes, which MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAIN SAWS author Carol J. Clover touches on regarding the feminine masochism viewing perspective, and yeah, there’s not more perfect film for that than this.
  • I’ll also note: I first saw this film at what I think is absolutely the perfect time in one’s life, in my mid-teens, thanks to my friend Chris, although I do know I spent a lot of time staring at the LaserDisc cover well before actually watching the film. I hadn’t re-watched it until today. It is far crazier and hornier than I remember, and I can’t believe we got away with watching it while his parents were away.

My friend Mark pointed out two other Mary Shelley films, both released in the late 80s, which I have yet to watch — there are DVDs available of both, but they can’t be streamed — that I hope to catch, and perhaps you may be interested in them as well:


HAUNTED SUMMER (1988, which certainly backgrounds Mary, but is very much about her):

And, of course, here’s the trailer:


(Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD) I previously recommended Gillian Armstrong’s OSCAR AND LUCINDA but, apart from her 1994 adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN, she’s perhaps best known for her first feature film MY BRILLIANT CAREER, an adaptation of Miles Franklin debut novel of the same name.

MY BRILLIANT CAREER stars Judy Davis (she’s been in everything from BARTON FINK to NAKED LUNCH to FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN) as Sybylla Melvyn, a rather immature, somewhat naive, headstrong young woman in late 19th century Australia who wants to create, to impress herself on the world, and certainly doesn’t settle for simply getting married and settling down, even when she finds herself enamored with Harry Beecham (Sam Neill in one of his earliest film appearances).

MY BRILLIANT CAREER was released midway through the Australian New Wave film movement and, while it’s Armstrong’s first feature, it’s a remarkably well-executed film — she clearly knew what she wanted to do with it — and Donald McAlpine’s involvement as cinematographer lends a rustic, but striking atmosphere to the film, ably switching from pristine upper-class interiors to dust-enveloped farms.

Yes, Sybylla can be a bit much and maddening at times, but her journey is a worthwhile and rewarding one, without being treacly.


(hoopla/VOD) When I first heard that Ken Burns was working on a documentary about the Dust Bowl, I was already neck-deep doing research for a very Dust Bowl-centric novel and I thought to myself: “Well, I might as well give up on it now, because soon there’ll be a storm of Dust Bowl novels and the market will be exhausted.’”

For whatever reason, that did not happen. (Also, while I did finish a very rough version of the novel, I ended up abandoning it as it deviated too far from what I wanted it to be.) When Burns’ THE DUST BOWL did come out, it didn’t have the buzz that his recent documentaries have had. Hell, I heard more people talking about Burns’ BASEBALL doc than THE DUST BOWL.

Ken Burns has always been able to turn what could be a dull American history lesson into something immensely watchable; dramatic, even. He even managed to make the story of the creation of the United States National Parks into a riveting six-part documentary series. However, the Dust Bowl itself, just on paper, reads like a horror story. It doesn’t necessary require Burns’ deft touch.

If you aren’t familiar with the Dust Bowl, it’s one of the earliest and one of the worst, man-made environmental tragedies ever. Basically, the US government had a ton of unworked land in the Plains and then handled out lots for folks to head west, to settle and farm. Families rushed out and overworked the land to the point where the soil ended up turning to dust. Then a severe drought arrived and, because nothing could grow, there was nothing to catch the wind in the plains. The winds stripped all of the newfound dust from the ground, causing the ‘dust storms’ that barreled over the lands. Oh, and all of this occurred during The Great Depression.

To be clear: we’re not talking about temporary tornados here; we’re talking about stories-high loads of dust covering the lands for days on end. Houses were literally buried in dust. Everything in your house was covered in dust. You ate and breathed dust. The dust chewed through everything, eroding wood, clothing; farm animals would suffocate on it; children spewed up dirt.

These storms lasted for a decade because, there was no way to stop them without rehabilitating the land and, because of the prolonged drought, that simply couldn’t be done, not the way the current farmers tended their lots. Those lands had literally became deserts. Everyone that had been lead out there by the government, told to farm away with abandon, were left with less than nothing. (Yes, this was definitely Burns’ attempt to bring attention to climate change.)

Burns has always been best at leveraging photos for visual props as opposed to film footage, as photos allow him to unfurl his trademark sense of fireside storytelling at his own pace, but there are more than enough snippets of environmental footage that really hammer home the scale, monstrosity, and devastation of the storms. Anyone could make an effective cautionary tale documentary from that footage because it’s that spectacularly unreal, and it encompasses everything about America at that point in time.

It’s also worth noting that, unlike many Burns’ docs, a number of those who lived through the Dust Bowl are still alive, so there are far more first-person accounts than you’d expect from a documentary of his. It’s an enthralling, often tragic documentary, one which captures the tension of how the US was handling the plains at that time.

I’d imagine the same reason why THE DUST BOWL didn’t gain traction like prior Burns documentaries is the same reason I never learned about the Dust Bowl until later in life. It’s the tale of an American failure on American land that was spearheaded by an American government and resulted in the ruin of many American families and individuals. It’s a man-made disaster that folks just want to sweep under the rug and, yeah, that doesn’t make for the coziest viewing, but it’s history worth knowing.


(Discovery+/fubo/Science Channel)? This will definitely date me, but one of my formative memories is of being dragged out of bed by my father in the middle of the night to see Halley’s Comet. See, I loved reading about space, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. We drove out to the middle of nowhere — easily done when you live in Vermont — but, when he set up my telescope, I refused to look, scared of peering into the unknown. I was too young to have an existential crisis but, upon finally squinting through the telescope’s lens and seeing the burst of light in my telescope, well, it made me feel very small and very alone and very scared, but also in awe of the universe.

Now that I’ve technically grown up, practically every night I reinstill that cosmic feeling by letting this show lull me to sleep.

HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS features an assortment of cosmologists, astrophysicists, theoretical physicists, and other scientists (including Michio Kaku) who discuss the theme of the episode, say, about new discoveries regarding the moons of Saturn, or expound on neutron stars, but more often than not it’s concerned with black holes. While they’re excitedly chatting away about their life’s work, or while Mike Rowe is narrating some connective tissue to help viewers understand the concepts, the show throws a bevy of impressive space CGI at you.

It’s been running for nine seasons now, although a fair amount of the recent seasons consist of three pre-existing hour-long episodes wrapped into one, which makes it perfect for half-awake background viewing.

It’s worth nothing that there are a ton of smaller clips from the show available via YouTube. Science Channel has even conveniently assembled an entire playlist of them, which should make for quality background viewing for you, too.

MR. SOUL! (2018)

(HBO MAX) I’m embarrassed that I was completely unaware of the existence of the Black variety TV show SOUL!, which ran from 1968 to 1973, a bit before my time. The show was an overstuffed marvel of wall-to-wall talent, featuring musicians, writers, and poets, and this documentary that extolls it is absolutely fascinating.

Despite the doc being named after the host of the show, Ellis Haizlip, and co-directed by his niece, it’s rather light on particulars about his life. Instead it focuses more on what he accomplished through the show than being a personal profile, which isn’t an admonishment, merely an observation.

Either way, be prepared to take notes while watching it, as there are a litany of acts and individuals noted in the doc that deserve your additional attention.

(Grateful to Damon Locks for posting about this doc, which I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.)