Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

October, 2023:


DraculaWineDrink enough of it, and you will definitely be happy. In a sense it was an obvious thing to do: Universal Studios partnered with Australian vintner 19 Crimes to bring you…monster-themed wine. Alas, there are just two: Dracula Red Blend and Frankenstein Cabernet Sauvignon. Bummer. How about a Wolfman White Blend? or a Mummy Malbec? Maybe if this year’s special monster editions sell well, they’ll expand the brand next year.

As best I can tell (and I’ve drunk 19 Crimes Red Blend off and on for years) Dracula Red Blend is the same Red Blend I know well: Medium-bodied, fruit-forward, no detectable tannins. It doesn’t quite qualify as a “soft” red blend like Menage a Trois Silk, but it’s in the ballpark. Solid pizza wine, or doubtless good with bratwurst on the grill. In recent years I’ve come to favor dark red blends, like the brilliant but sadly discontinued Gnarly Head Authentic Black. This isn’t that. On the other hand, I drink zins and pinots here and there so I don’t get tired of soft-ish red blends. 19 Crimes Red Blend would serve that same purpose well. Oh—and the label supposedly glows in the dark. I guess I’ll find out tonight.

As for old Frankie Cab, you’re going to have to try it yourself because it’s a rare Cabernet Sauvignon that I can drink with a straight face. Once again, I’m a supertaster, and to me, oaky tannins dominate the taste of the wine. I don’t chew on oak floorboards. And I don’t drink cabs. (Ok, before my friend Jim Strickland jumps in to remind me, he found a cab that I actually like, from Daou. It passed muster with me because it’s reasonably fruit-forward, with so little oak that I can actually taste the fruit.)

If you pair wine with music (I do sometimes) consider Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz,” a piano-centric orchestral piece based loosely on the venerable Dies Irae chant. Definitely a Halloweeny minor-key composition, full of bassoon noodling and superhuman Liszty piano work I could never dream of while I was playing pop songs (badly) on our piano when I was in college.

Hey, not everybody is good at everything. Have fun tonight, and perhaps hoist a drink with Drac.

Hallowhy: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualism

I’m fascinated by the Victorian/Edwardian period of history, which is where steampunk is usually set, as well as weird westerns. My WIP drumlins novel The Everything Machine is in some respects a space western. But quite apart from a lot of other fascinating things from that era (The Great Eastern! Brunel!) there is the puzzle of spiritualism. It’s that time of year again, so I can ask and perhaps answer a question that popped up as I read about the phenomenon of spiritualism, which was quite the thing in the Victorian era and for some time after, from roughly 1850 until 1940. It came out of nowhere and spread explosively, then vanished almost as quickly. Yes, there are a few spiritualist churches still in operation, but they’re notable not because of their ubiquity but because of their scarcity.

Here’s the (double) question: Why did spiritualism appear? And why did it vanish?

My tl-dr answer: Lotsa deaths. Also antibiotics, and television. Let’s talk about that.

Most people agree that spiritualism began in 1848 in the farm town of Hydesville, outside Rochester NY. There were two young sisters living in a small house with their parents. As you’ll note if you read Colin Wilson’s excellent Poltergeist (see yesterday’s entry) having pubertal girls in a house is practically begging for poltergeist activity.

And so it was. In the house of the Fox family, there began all the usual: scratchings, bangings, growls, raps, and more bangings. Some of the booms could be heard over a mile away. (Subwoofers didn’t exist in 1848.) Katie, the younger sister at 12, was a bit of a snot. The general assumption was that the noises were the work of the devil. So Katie jumps up in the midst of audio pandemonium, and yells, “Here, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do!” She then pounded the kitchen table twice with her fist. The noise stopped for a moment, then two loud raps answered. Katie and her older sister Margaretta listened to the invisible whatsit echo their own noises, then established a sort of code for answers: noise (of whatever sort) meant “yes.” Silence meant “no.” Using this code, they questioned the family poltergeist, and soon established a more complex code for spelling out words. The poltergeist claimed to be the spirit of a dead peddler who had been murdered and buried beneath the cellar of the house. He gave his name as Charles Rosma, and a little digging in the cellar and behind a wall turned up bones and a peddler’s carry box used for door-to-door sales work.

The story spread like wildfire across America and then across the Atlantic to Europe, and soon lots of other people were talking to “spirits” via pounding on tables or—later—making the tables tap out codes with their legs. After that came the “planchette,” which is a kind of pointer, to be used on a board printed with the alphabet. (These were not called “ouija boards” for quite awhile after.)

Certain people had a talent for talking to whatever was tipping tables or moving planchettes around. Other people didn’t, but tried it anyway—and in some cases, got some minor interactions. By the 1860s, formal spiritualist groups coalesced around the world, many claiming to be parts of a new religion. By the 1880s, spiritualism had also become a sort of parlor game played by groups of bored teens and young adults, some of whom freely admitted moving the planchette or table with their own muscles. After all, you had to touch the planchette or table with human hands to make it work. Faking it was easy, and getting laughable answers was the goal of the game.

Down the years after 1850, different methods of talking to dead guys appeared: automatic writing, trance mediums, and direct voice, among others. Despite being a game for many young people, it was taken seriously by many adults, and a spiritualist canon (most produced by automatic writing) appeared, explaining what spirits do on the job and off, where they go to school, and what sorts of surroundings they live in. Spirits claiming to be deceased relatives of the “sitters” (the people attending what later became known as seances) came through often, sometimes to say very little more than “I’m all right! It’s beautiful here! Can’t wait to see you again!” Despite a slightly grim edge to such communications, people were ecstatic to hear from their dear departed. There was plenty of religion abroad in the Victorian era, but spiritualism offered something none of the other religions could: Messages from departed loved ones.

Something people now in the 21st century generally fail to understand is that there were a lot of departed loved ones back then. And not just old people. Many children died of diseases like diphtheria, pneumonia, or that hideous killer “consumption”: the Victorian term for tuberculosis. Spouses became widowed far earlier and oftener than now. Death in childbirth was common, and supposedly happened to one in twenty pregnant women trying to give birth. Stillborn children and infants who lived for only a day or even a few hours were quite common.

If you read the contemporary literature of spiritualism (I have) it becomes obvious that everybody back then had deceased loved ones: parents, children, infants, grandparents, spouses, close friends.


There was a huge market for Spiritualism (I’ll cap it now because it had become a global movement/religion and not merely an idea) and Spiritualism catered very well to that market. Spiritualism cruised along at full roar (or maybe full bang) for decades. It reached what might be considered its peak during WWI, when a great many new deceased love ones happened. After WWI and the Spanish Flu of 1918, death rates continued to fall due to chlorinated water, indoor plumbing, sanitation in medicine and the first vaccines. Penicillin appeared in 1942, and it was the first antibiotic of many. People no longer died from infected minor cuts and scratches.

Once WWII was over, death was no longer an everyday thing in American life and elsewhere in the developed West. People were (mostly) living their threescore-and-ten, and death in childbirth was not the scourge it had been in the 1890s. The demand for talking to dead people was nowhere near as strong. The supply of seances and mediums thinned out. Little by little, people lost interest.

That was Spiritualism’s first whammy. There was another.

In the last quarter of the 19th Century, entertainment was scarce, and mostly confined to the well-off. There were concerts. But there was no broadcast radio, and until the 1920s, few phonographs. For music in the 1880s, it was concerts or nothing. (Or in some cases playing your own piano.) Concerts cost money, as did plays. So what did bored young people do for entertainment?

Table-tipping. Planchettes. It was a craze. It was cheap. Modern histories generally don’t state this, but if you read the contemporary reports, seances had become a parlor game.

Fast-forward to 1930. There was radio. There were movies. Not free—but increasingly inexpensive as time went on. Seances had competition. Then, in 1948, TV happened in a big way. Sets were still expensive, and until the early-mid 1950s people often watched them in bars. But demand brought down prices, and by 1955, TV ruled the entertainment world.

How could seances compete with Sid Caesar?

They didn’t. Spiritualism became an eccentric current in an increasingly distant past. Now, there’s an asterisk to this story: In the early 1960s, Parker Brothers (the game people, makers of Monopoly) bought the rights to a product called Ouija, which had been produced and sold since 1910 or so by a William Fuld. It was basically an inexpensive prefab planchette system. By 1965 Parker Brothers was targeting Ouija at tweens and teens with commercials on both radio and TV. I was there; I saw them. The girl down the block got one for her birthday and twisted my arm into trying it with her. Nothing happened. She was annoyed. I was relieved.

Many millions of boards were sold. In 1968, in fact, Ouija outsold Monopoly, which boggles my mind, at least. I wonder how many people actually treated the “game” seriously. I also wonder how quickly the damned things went into the trash.

That’s the story as I understand it. When death was an everyday thing, the demand for Spiritualism was high. As death rates went down and death became a sad but uncommon occurrence (compared to the midlate 1800s) the demand went off a cliff. Parker Brothers tried making it a game, and although I have no real data, no one I knew except the girl down the street had a Ouija board.

As with poltergeists, I take no particular position on Spiritualism. NDEs and channeling have taken over nickel-and-dime afterlife exploration. A couple of weird events in my life suggest that there is an afterlife, and it’s a fundamental concept in Catholicism, if not described well. I’ll take author John Hick’s opinion as my own: It’s there, but we won’t know what it’s like until we get there.

I’m good with that.

Hallowreads: Poltergeist by Colin Wilson

It’s that time of the year again, when I pull down a couple of titles from a region of my bookshelves where I keep books in a category I call “Weirdness.” This year’s leadoff volume is Colin Wilson’s Poltergeist. It’s special because my old eyes can no longer read the microscopic type in the MMPB edition I bought when I was in my 40s, and in truth haven’t read it for ten-ish years. I gave my friend Jim Strickland the MMPB last year and (later on) he gifted me a hardcover copy from 1982.

Jim had a reason for reading Wilson’s book: He’s finishing up the second volume in a series of novels about a private eye who is a poltergeist animating the body of a woman suicide, and solving, well, cold-case murders. (What? You want her to be a patent attorney or something?) Poltergeist! Ask the Dust is a terrific read, and very much in the spirit of the season right now. Get it or regret it, as they say.

I have a reason of my own for rereading Wilson’s Poltergeist. But I’ll come back to that.

The late Colin Wilson (1931-2013) covered a lot of ground as a writer, but what he’s best known for is books on, well, weirdness. Poltergeist may be my favorite, in part because he zeroes in on a handful of related phenomena in the immense pantheon of paranormal peculiarity. (The bulk of his books cover many topics, most of them briefly.) Even ordinary people who wouldn’t know an urisk from a hole in the ground know what a poltergeist is: an invisible presence that generates loud bangs and knockings and scrapings in houses unfortunate enough to host one. More energetic specimens throw things around (stones especially) pull bedclothes off beds, generate perfectly round puddles of water (usually on kitchen floors) and much more rarely speak. Their product line is basically chaos.

Wilson’s book begins with is a sampling of poltergeist hauntings from ancient days to as recent as 1968. He’s a very engaging writer, but even he admits that the more poltergeist reports you read, the more alike they start to sound. There are exceptions, of course. (An old friend of mine, now deceased, sent me regular reports on his poltergeist for a couple of years back in the late ‘90s. Its favorite trick was stealing sleeping pills and pain killers.) For detailed discussion, he chooses a few instances that stand out for one reason or another.

The well-known “Black Monk of Pontefract” poltergeist gets a whole longish chapter, because it happened in the UK and Wilson was able to interview some of the people who experienced it. The instance involved at least one phenomenon not seen elsewhere: Chalk dust appearing out of nowhere in a room and drifting down to the floor. It was unique in that the dust appeared in a plane about five feet above the floor before it fell. The air above the plane was perfectly clear. The Black Monk (whom almost nobody actually saw) created those round puddles on the kitchen floor and broke a lot of dishes, potted plants, and a large grandfather clock. Unlike most poltergeists, the Black Monk actually threw people off their beds onto the floor, and in one case dragged a teen girl up a flight of stairs by her neck.

Poltergeists rarely seriously harm people, either from thrown objects or physical mistreatment like pinches and slaps. The 19th Century Bell Witch is another atypical poltergeist Wilson covers, as the only well-known example of a poltergeist killing someone. (There is a whole book on the Bell Witch: The Infamous Bell Witch of Tennessee by Charles Edwin Price, if you’re interested. It’s weirdness cubed and very creepy.) Poltergeists are often considered demonic entities, but there’s a problem: Poltergeists are unaffected by exorcisms. They show up unannounced, have their fun for awhile, and then leave. Holy water, prayers, and crosses have no effect on them.

To fatten up the book, Wilson does stray a little from the core topic. He has a chapter on spirit possession, and another on fairies and other “elementals”. He spends more time on the Cottingley Fairies than they warrant. Google the term for pictures, and riddle me this: Don’t those supposed fairies look awfully two-dimensional? In 1917, two tweener girl cousins took photos with their father’s box camera in the woods by a stream that supposedly include dancing fairies. As fakey as the creatures looked, powers like Arthur Conan Doyle swallowed it whole. Years later, one of the sisters confessed that they’d used cutouts of figures they drew on thin card stock, kept in place by hat pins. Where the hell was Sherlock Holmes when Conan Doyle needed him?

Wilson admits that we don’t know how poltergeists “work.” Ghost hunter Guy Playfair offered Wilson this explanation: There are invisible “footballs” full of energy lying around, and when disembodied spirits find one, they play with it until the energy is all gone. Because poltergeists often haunt houses with children in mid-puberty living there, many have suggested that poltergeists draw on that sexual energy to do all their levitating and banging around. Kids grow up, the footballs deflate, and the poltergeists say bye-bye.

It’s a fascinating business, and Wilson captures this fascination very well. Don’t bother if you’ve long written off the paranormal as (like the Cottingley Fairies) a collection of hoaxes. The book is a real page-turner, and if there’s still space in your head for mysterious going-ons, I’d say get it. I looked for but did not find an ebook edition. (Only about two thirds of his books are on Kindle, and Poltergeist is one of the no-shows.) Highly recommended.

Now, I have some interest in the topic, which goes back a long way, all the way, in fact, to my novel The Cunning Blood. I postulated that our cosmos is the 3-dimensional surface of a 4-dimensional sphere, and that there are minds inside that hypersphere, the interior of which is called “metaspace.” Jamie Eigen called them “the players,” and researchers later named them “metaspatial intellects.” (MSIs.) We learn a lot more about the MSIs in my WIP, The Everything Machine. The MSIs, we discover, can create poltergeist-like phenomena by manipulating our space from their space in a higher dimension. Just like you can touch any point on the surface of a sphere without actually entering the sphere, creatures inside a hypersphere can touch any point in the hypersphere’s 3-dimensional surface. I also think that this is what “dark matter” is: 4-dimensional mass bending our space from the 4th (or higher) spatial dimension. Dark matter’s gravity bends our space, but all we see is the bending. Just good ol’ SF writer speculation on my part, but hey, you got any better theories?

Anyway. Stay tuned. If I can find the time in the next few days, I’ll try to review a couple of other Hallowreads here. And on Halloween, I will post a review of…Hallowine.

Found it! (No Thanks to “Query By Humming”)

Well, after supper this evening I finally found a piece of music I had been searching for since, well, I’m not entirely sure.  But waaaaaay back when I was in third or fourth grade (think 1961-62) my Catholic grade school did a kind of a talent show, mostly by seventh and eighth graders. There was singing and dancing and music of various sorts, but one composition threw me back in my chair. Everything I liked and still like in music was there: melody, harmony, energy. The music was from a record (it was an instrumental) and what may have been an eighth-grade girl in a sequined costume did a dance routine that included baton twirling. (Add “baton twirling” to my list of things that are disappearing or are already gone.) I was impressed by her ability to dance and twirl at the same time, but the song—it has remained vivid in my memory to this day.

I can whistle it—and have whistled it for several people, in hope that they could name it. The name of the song was on the mimeographed show program that we all received, but as vivid as the song itself has remained, its name vanished into the mists of my personal history. I get the sense for a title like “Trumpet Jubilee” but no such song (as best I can tell) exists.

“Query-by-humming” is a term I first heard from David Stafford, and Google can actually do that—sorta. If I’m in a store and their Muzak channel is playing something that appeals to me, I yank out my phone, bring up Google, and hit the microsphone icon. The problem with Google is that it can only identify recorded music. I tried whistling the song into Google any number of times, but it always threw up its hands and gave up.

So this evening over dinner it occurred to me out of nowhere: That song sounds like something Leroy Anderson would do. So once we got the dishes done, I ran back in here to my office and looked for a list of Anderson compositions. No “Trumpet Jubilee.” But…”Bugler’s Holiday?” Dare I hope? I went to YouTube and found a recording by the US Army Band.

YESSSSS! That’s it!

There are a dozen performances on YouTube, all of them very listenable. One thing I found peculiar is that every single one of them seems faster than I recall the rendition played for that baton-twirling eighth grader in 1962. Maybe I hear it more slowly in my head because I can’t whistle anywhere near that fast.

Who cares! I found it!

(I’ve already scolded myself for grumbling that those are trumpets, not bugles.)

So. Look for something long enough, and sooner or later you’ll find it. In 1968 I heard a no-hit-wonder band play the Monkees song “Shades of Gray” exactly once…with a faint recall that the band was The Willoughbys. It took 35 years, but I eventually found it in a book listing rock 45s, only the band was The Will-O-Bees. I mentioned it here on Contra and actually got an email from Janet Blossom, their lead singer. I bought that 45 at a crufty used record store, ripped it and cleaned it up, and now I can play it whenever I want.

I’ll do the same with “Bugler’s Holiday.” Except now I’ll just go up to Amazon and buy the MP3. No ripping required.

Having scored this victory, I’ll now dredge the swamp in my brain to see what else in the line of music I might have forgotten that would be well worth listening to.