The Star Wars franchise is infamous for its licensed merchandising. With the release of the latest film, it's nearly impossible to go to a store and not see at least one product emblazoned with the Star Wars logo. The way I understand it, the market was similarly saturated when the original movies came out.
Discussions on rampant capitalism aside, sometimes the charm is simply irresistible. Take for example another one of my great yard sale finds from years and years ago: a Star Wars themed alphabet book!
How this book survived my childhood intact is beyond me, but it remains a prized piece of my collection to this day in spite of its poor condition. The book is a part of the old "Read-Along" series published by Buena Vista back in 1984. Accompanying the release of Return of the Jedi, the book originally came with a 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record featuring word-for-word narration. It even featured character voices and sound effects from the films! Sadly, I was only able to find the book as the record was apparently long since lost. However, if you're interested you can listen to the audio here.
I read this book many times growing up. I mostly remember being fascinated with the drawings and how detailed they were, being almost perfect likenesses of the characters and creatures from the films.
Apologies to alphabet book authors - as I'm sure it's more difficult than it looks - but even as a kid I thought it was fairly obvious that the uncredited author of this book probably struggled coming up with characters to accompany each letter. There are definitely some unusual choices at various points, with obscure characters (see letters U and Z) and sort-of Star Wars related subject matter (see letter Q) being utilized to complete the alphabet.
Then there are the rhymes... Oh, the rhymes. These range from the hilarious - the Bantha named Samantha and stormtroopers as party poopers - to the groan-inducing - the entirety of page 22 featuring X-Wing Fighters. It's so bad at times that the author actually breaks the fourth wall on a few occasions to openly lament the decision to make this a rhyming book!
Stan Lee - talented writer, successful producer, and insanely imaginative creator/co-creator of beloved Marvel super-heroes including the Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Invincible Iron Man, Thor, and the X-Men - turns 93 today.
As December 25th draws nearer, too many of us find ourselves already out of the spirit of the season due to the onslaught of sugar-coated, nerve-grating music that is all but inescapable this time of year. Thankfully, Midnight Syndicate's latest release presents a wonderfully welcome alternative... A Gothic-inspired Christmas album that provides a slightly darker - but far more enjoyable - approach to holiday music.
It seems to me that the majority of Christmas albums typically tend to be either saturated with overtly put-on cheerfulness or completely devoid of any substantial musical value. The very notion of a Christmas album is usually associated with the ho-hum of yet another cash-grab for flavor-of-the-month pop performers who are happy to phone-in unimaginative, haphazard covers of songs we've heard already lazily covered a million times over.
But just as Midnight Syndicate isn't your typical group of musicians, Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering isn't your typical Christmas album...
For this offering, the group alternates between original compositions and reworkings of classic Christmas songs. As long-time fans would expect, the majority of the original pieces are unmistakably the work of Midnight Syndicate. On these tracks the group does what they do best: generate adventurously dark instrumentals thick with mood and a Gothic atmosphere. "Winter Storm" is a particularly epic symphonic track that could easily have been a part of the group's previous release, Monsters of Legend. Other notable original pieces include the gleefully devious "Little Helpers", the truly haunting "Into the Stillness", and the surprisingly heart-warming "Christmas at Midnight". "Night of the Krampus", an homage to the legendary Christmas devil of eastern European folklore, is of course one of my personal favorites.
However, the re-imaginings of the classic carols deserve attention as well! One could easily imagine a self-described "Gothic Christmas Album" merely consisting of organs simply playing covers of well-known songs at a slower tempo to fit the label, but it is abundantly apparent that Midnight Syndicate was not going to be content with churning out a creatively lazy effort. Instead, each of these reworkings offer something different and refreshing and are true re-imaginings of the Christmas songs you've heard so many times before.
Older, more traditional songs that have been around for over a century (or longer) such as "Coventry Carol", "Greensleeves", and "Carol of the Bells" almost naturally lend themselves to a dark reworking. But Midnight Syndicate also take on cheerier tunes such as "Up on the Housetop" and twist them into something you might expect to hear on the soundtrack for a horror film.
While the group does indeed take a darker approach, that isn't to say that the album isn't to say that the album is a completely grim in tone or lacking of any kind cheer associated with the Christmas season. Quite the contrary, there are more than a few moments of what I can only be describe as genuine Christmas joy and wonder! "Sing We Now of Christmas" is simply majestic sounding (I imagine climbing some moonlit snow-covered peak while listening to this piece). The group's rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" caught me totally off guard... For a moment I forgot that I was listening to a Midnight Syndicate record and got swept up in the majestic awe captured on the track.
The final verdict: Midnight Syndicate's Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering is a Christmas album that defies the conventions of holiday music flooding the airwaves this time of year. Bursting with creativity and imagination, this collection of original pieces and dark re-imaginings of classic carols are a perfect alternative for anyone looking for a truly unique listening experience this holiday season. Who would have guessed that a group known for creating Halloween music would be so successful in breathing new life into Christmas songs?
You can find out more about Midnight Syndicate and purchase albums such as Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering on their website.
I hope everyone had a happy Halloween this year. I'm pleased to report that ours was a smashing success! Thankfully, the weather was cooperative enough to let us set out our entire display for the big night!
The goal for this year's display was bigger and better. To create a more immersive atmosphere I wanted to have a graveyard with tombstones this year and enclose the whole thing in a run-down fence. The tombstones were a bit of a challenge since I have no wood-working ability whatsoever. Thankfully, the local technical school was kind enough to carve the graves for me... All I had to do was send them my designs and then paint them up! The fence came together very quickly and easily using old pallet wood from a weekend dumpster-diving adventure.
Of course, one thing led to another and I ended up constructed a simple archway to go along with the fence... Which then of course had to have sign... Which of course necessitated that the whole thing needed a name to put on the sign! For whatever reason, the phrase "fearful symmetry" from the William Blake poem The Tyger popped into my head while I was working and I thought about how cool it would be to have a "Fearful Cemetery". But eventually, I ended up really liking the name "FearField Cemetery" instead. A friend with a fancy laser wood-burner created the amazing sign for the archway.
Overall, the end result is the closest to what I had envisioned all along: A rickety old graveyard filled with monsters!
Another aspect I wanted to improve this year was the lighting. I felt like last year's lighting was a good step in the right direction. Rather than depend on ambient light as I had in the past, I found that the lights enhanced the props and made them really stand out against the darkness (Who would have thought?!?). So this year I took it to another level, incorporating lights throughout the whole thing, illuminating individual props and using light sources as accents.
I also set out to improve older props. Unfortunately, many had fallen into disrepair, so it was time to make improvements in those areas. Additionally, I wanted to enhance the character of a few characters in taking them to another level. Zombie Chef is one of my oldest props and he was always more of a zombie waiter, just holding his tray of brains and such.
So this year I decided to give him a grill. I didn't get to work on the grill as much as I would have liked... I didn't add coals or a fog machine to simulate smoke, but I think it turned out alright anyway.
As you know, I made Cousin Eerie last year, but he was not able to make his Halloween debut due to the inclement weather. Since he had been patiently waiting in the basement all year I decided that he needed a whimsical companion to oversee the madness of the night with.
Enter: "Classy Cthulhu", this year's only new character. My version of Cthulhu is a sophisticated, fez-wearing lounge dweller who strikes up witty conversation when he's not destroying the sanity of mere mortals. Interestingly enough, I was able to find an antique chair of the same make as Cousin Eerie's so I guess it was meant to be!
Meanwhile, Fly Guy, our resident mad scientist was all alone on the porch this year. For whatever reason most of the kids braved the graveyard, but wouldn't venture into the lab! Fly Guy was a real sport and terrorized the best he could from his post just the same.
The ground-breaker Toxic Zombie now has a grave to call home and I guess a new name... Cleetus Wormwood. The tombstone was inspired by an award-winning DIY grave prop. I really liked the name and it seemed to fit my character.
The only prop I had some trouble with was Lantern Ghoul who kept leaning over and his arm just kept falling off for some reason! Thankfully, the arm held during Halloween and he never toppled over on anyone. This guy will need some major repairs before next year!
Of course Hagatha was the show-stealing fan-favorite once again. All of the trick-or-treaters had to go check her out up-close and try to see what she was concocting in that pot... Only to be startled by the fog machine suddenly coming on as she let out a piercing cackle!
Ultimately, it was a great night! We lost count of how many trick-or-treaters we ended up with, but I'm confident that it was well over 200. Everyone seemed to enjoy the display. A lot of the kids wanted pictures with the props and there were plenty of "oohs" and "aahs"...and I'm sure I overheard few "eeks" and "groans" as well. It's great to see all of the hard work was appreciated. I hope that in some way I have helped the kids have the opportunity to make some life-long Halloween memories.
I'm too exhausted to even begin thinking about plans for next year's display at this point...