Sunday, 15 February 2015

Dr Moreau, witchcraft and Hollywood

Although Hollywood is regularly described as a land of magic, the wizardry is usually borne of wondrous inventive talent rather than anything occult. Indeed the godfather of the effects film, Méliès, was a practicing magician turned film-maker. However, there are famous directors who dabble in the dark arts.  Maya Deren was Haitian Vodou priestess, while Alejandro Jodorowsky is a magician and Kenneth Anger a disciple of Crowley. I was recently pleased to learn that Richard Stanley can be added to this list.

Stanley rose to fame with his breakthrough hit Hardware in 1990. The pressure-cooker tale of a woman trapped in a dystopian apartment with a maniacal robot caught the zeigeist of the MTV generation (helped in no small part by cameos from Iggy Pop, Carl McCoy and Lemmy). In 1993 Stanley followed it up with the excellent but underrated Dust Devil set in a violent, primitive psychotropic vision of Namibia. He returned to features a couple of years later but this time things took a turn for the worse...

He helmed, but was fired from, the ill-fated The Island of Dr. Moreau starring the (nightmare) combination of Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot it seems. Over the years various stories have emerged of Stanley going into meltdown and refusing to leave a tree he had climbed, then breaking back into the production and trying to sabotage things. A  documentary about his experience has now been released, and it looks to be a corker. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau has an amazing trailer in which Stanley freely admits to using witchcraft to further his plans.

I have been itching to see a new documentary but seem to have missed the UK showings. Hopefully it'll be available on DVD soon.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Operation: Cone of Power

The pulp-ey sub-genre of Weird War II has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance lately with various comics, films and games all featuring increasingly bizarre scenarios. As my previous post served to show, in reality there was no small amount of weird activity during the war. Things never seemed to get so crazy that a small, horned hell-babies were ever summoned by Russian magicians, but there is some evidence to suggest that occult attacks were directed at Germany.

Operation: Cone of Power is one purported instance. Allegedly a coven witches based in the New Forest conducted a ritual to send a message to the Third Reich command to convince them that they would never be able to cross the English Channel. A number of the group are said to have died shortly afterwards from exhaustion and exposure (as they were all naked during the ritual).  The main source of this story is Gerald Gardner, who went on to found the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca. Detractors say that his claims are fraudulent and that he invented the New Forrest Coven to bolster his credentials. Beyond a couple of local deaths shortly after the ritual was said to have been performed, there seems little evidence beyond Garner's account to indicate the ritual occurred.

From the scant evidence we have it seems that any ritual might have been a grass-roots activity rather than a government-sactioned operation. MI9 was the department which looked after intelligence during WWII. It supposedly employed magician Jasper Maskelyne during the war to 'hide' strategic assets with unusual techniques. However it seems unlikely that the government would have gone so far as to contract 'real' witches, not least of which because of the risk of bad press were it to become public. It wasn't until the 1970s until the West was able to even contemplate harnessing esoteric powers for military purposes, with the US Army's funding of Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion research and development.

We're never likely to find out if the Cone of Power ritual took place, but it is interesting to wonder about what occult of mystical practices the British might have resorted to on a local or personal level in the face of a German invasion.

I have no idea what this image is - it came up when I did a Google search for 'cone of power'. I like to think it's from a technical manual on psychic resonance. It's probably just a photocopy of an 80s Richer Sounds instruction manual. Oh well...

Monday, 2 February 2015

Who put Bella in the witch elm?

One of the more bizarre unsolved killings of the twentieth century happened in my newly adopted region of the Midlands. During the second world war, a quartet of boys discovered the corpse of a women stuffed into a thicket of branches of an elm tree. Wikipedia has a good synopsis of the case, and surmises that the general wartime confusion of the country lead to the victim never being identified nor anyone being convicted of the crime. Graffiti reading "Who put Bella in the witch elm" (or words to that effect) appeared near the scene right up until 1999 suggesting that this gruesome killing still weighs heavy on the psyche of locals.

The scenario immediately reminds me of the MR James story The Ash Tree where a tree plays host to some particularly nasty denizens which plague the local lord of the manor. Indeed, trees and death have a long association. The wold over they are used as improvised gibbets, and in certain cultures "Burial Trees" support corpses or coffins. The idea that trees can grow from seeds nourished by corpses links them to re-birth and the cycle of life. Jesus was, of course, nailed to one, albeit dismembered into the constituent parts of a crucifix.

The comedian Steve Punt recorded an investigative radio programme on the Bella case and it is well worth a listen. Though light-hearted, he uncovers some interesting facts about the case and potential links to local covens, war time spies and even conspiracies. It is now unlikely that we'll ever know the full facts surrounding this mysterious corpse, but I am sure it will continue to shape the psychogeography of the region.

Props to the excellent Hedge Row Devil tumblr for putting me onto this horrible bit of folk history, and for being the source of the images above.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Gothic pageants

I've been to some pretty rock-and-roll parties in my time, but I strongly suspect they all pale in comparison to Sir Brooke Boothby's 1783 Gothic pageant. From the Tate's website:

In the summer of 1783, the Derbyshire gentleman Brooke Boothby ... organised a Gothic pageant for the painter Henry Fuseli in the woods behind a house belonging to one Colonel St George, somewhere in England. Involving costume, elaborate stage effects, poetry (penned by the struggling Irish writer Elizabeth Ryves) and an all-singing, all-dancing finale, this midnight entertainment was intended to ‘suprize & amuse the great Wizard painter, who had no suspicion of ye scheme’... Boothby, Fuseli, and the poet Anna Seward all took key roles in the pageant, dressing up, delivering their lines as supplied by Ryves, taking part in the carefully plotted action in different spots in the wood. Their family and friends assumed supporting roles, sporting costumes as fairies, monsters, knights and ladies, singing and dancing, and interacting with the lead players on cue. Curious and amusing as the details of the pageant are, its significance does not lie in the mere fact of its taking place. Private theatricals were immensely popular among the well off in the later eighteenth century, and could take on elaborate forms encompassing the fantastical and medievalising imagery associated with the literary genre of Gothic Romance.

What is striking about this epic revel is the lack of records. There don't seem to be any illustrations (contemporary or otherwise) depicting the proceedings and even its exact location is uncertain. This is unfortunate, but does leave the door open to some wonderful interpretations of the wickedly-intriguing implications. One can imagine all sorts of dramas played out against the backdrop of an ornate, Fuseli-infused Gothic pantomime.

We do have more records of the social exploits of Boothby's contemporary and fellow Gothic aesthete William Thomas Beckford. He constructed the (shoddily built and consequently ill-fated) Gothic edifice that was Fonthill Abbey. Beckford held wild revels there, notably in 1781 only a few years before Boothby's party. Records tell us he employed a dwarf to greet visitors at the main doors (possibly to add to the sense of scale) and his dinners were lit by burning torches held by hooded servants. Guests were treated to ox-roasts and nocturnal turns around the grounds. The building collapsed spectacularly in 1825.

Perhaps the closest thing we have to a record of Boothby's party are Fuseli's subsequent paintings of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream. They are utterly fantastical, but perhaps not so very far from the realities of the super-rich at the end of the eighteenth century.

Henry Fuseli - Titania and Bottom c.1790

Henry Fuseli - Titania's Awakening, 1785-1790

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Borley Rectory part 2: The Blue Book

Continuing from last week's post I wanted to blog about a wonderful aspect of the Borley Rectory "hauntings". During his investigative stint at the house, the ghost hunter Harry Price produced a pamphlet to brief his assistant. This small volume is dubbed the "Blue Book" and the British Library has an example of one on display as part of its excellent Terror and Wonder show.

The Harry Price Website gives an excellent, succinct overview of these publications:

The book describes the protocols required when visiting the Rectory in the capacity of an official observer of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, in connection with vigils inside the building & within its grounds, report writing & procedures for dealing with phenomena.  The pamphlet also gives a résumé of all the principle paranormal events which had been reported as having occurred in or around the former Bull residence over the years & this was seized upon by Price's critics after his death as his way of using the powers of suggestion in order to  influence his observers into reporting things which he could subsequently use to his advantage when writing about the case after the tenancy had come to an end.

I love the air of officialdom bestowed on this pamphlet by the restrained, authoritarian typography. Having grown up in a military family and then worked in the UK's Civil Service, they remind me of all sorts of far more credible documents I have encountered over the years.

But what do the pamphlets say? Alas I can't find anywhere on the web where the interior has been reproduced, either as a scan or just transposed text. If anyone know where I can find a copy, do please comment below.

At present, my imagination is running wild. I am hoping that these things are as bizarre as the Handbook for the Recently Deceased found by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin in, Beetlejuice (a book so impenetrable Baldwin gives up trying to decipher it, complaining that it reads like "stereo instructions").

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Borley Rectory

This is the first of a string of posts which are inspired by my visit to the Terror and Wonder exhibition at the British Library (a show which I highly recommend you go and see if you can before it closes in January). Amongst the exhibits were plans for Borley Rectory. Long-time readers will know of my fascination for floorplans, both real and fantastical, and this post is a spiritual successor to my ramblings about Boleskine House.

Known as "the most haunted house in England", the Rectory was a Gothic Victorian pile that was demolished in 1944. It gained public notoriety in the late 1920s after tabloids published articles about the alleged hauntings and the investigations by paranormal researcher Harry Price. Stories included skulls discovered in cupboards, spectral figures seen and innumerable unexplained noises heard. The genuineness of the phenomena are now largely discredited as the product of trickery by the residents and by Price himself. The place was set ablaze in 1939 after an oil lamp was accidentally overturned and the ruin was later demolished. Nonetheless the stature of the myths still looms large in Fortean folklore. I recall the case still being cited in the 1980s when I was making my first childish delvings into the paranormal via the gazeteers I found in local libraries.

I was fascinated to see Price's plans for the Rectory at the British Library show. He had marked on them the locations of the phenomena, like some diligent GM preparing a trap for his unwitting players. Bristol-based artist Hannah Taggart has been inspired by the myths surrounding the place and has produced a couple of fascinating interpretations of the site. I wonder whether it might be that the psychogeography of the place is responsible for the continuing hold it seems to have on our imaginations?

Price's plan of the Rectory 

Taggart's interpretation of the plans (above) with a vision of the substructure as well (below)

Monday, 1 December 2014

Fear the Kinder Boggart

I spent an afternoon driving around the Derbyshire Dales last weekend, snapping some of the bleakest bits of landscape I could find.

The area is not short of hauntings, legends and folklore and this is something I definitely want to explore more now that I am on the Dales' doorstep. Noteable amongst the ghosts, phantoms and witches said to reside in the hills are Boggarts. This is the local term for your common-or-garden Black Dog, so often found in British folklore. Seeing these large, shaggy and glowing-coal-eyed beasts is typically a sign that ill fortune on the horizon. However, they are not unknown to accompany lone travellers (sometimes women) and guide them to safety.

This excellent page recounts the following tale:

[A] big black dog is said to guard the graves of the three Jacobites buried near Swinscoe who were ambushed and slain in the 1745 rebellion. Eyewitness accounts have described the Boggart as being the size of a calf, with a shaggy black coat and glowing eyes as saucers. It never makes a sound and vanishes as quickly as it appears, into thin air. 

As the clouds descended and the lanes become choked with damp, dark fog it was easy to imagine how terrifying the landscape would be to folk in a pre-industral era. Witout torches or well-kept roads the living would have been at the mercy of all sorts of entities which, I would like to think, have since been forced to creep into the deep recesses of the earth. And our collective psyche.