Sunday, 26 April 2015

Dol Tor

Dol Tor was our second stop in my recent megalithic road trip. It is quite the opposite of the Andle Stone - a small, intimate circle buried amongst the trees at the edge of a wood. Indeed, standing on the Andle, one can almost see the Tor a few hundred metres away.

Built around 2000-1500BC Dol Tor comprises of a circle of small megaliths and a cairn. The stones are barely a couple of feet high, and feel like a nervous little heard of animals grazing below the pine trees. The cairn is now no more than a pile of mossy rocks - a damp, soft shadow, no doubt, of somehting that was once far more solid that gave up and caved-in as the years rolled by. The land beside the circle has been quarried but since left to overgrow. The resulting ravine is a verdant slash in the landscape, over which the heard of megaliths now watch.

While the plaque beside the circle describing its origins is well meant, I found it rather confusing. Since the first serious excavation and recording of the site in the 1930s, the stones have been moved about and re-arranged. However, the sign reproduces the 1930s plan. We stood there, somewhat baffled, for some minutes trying to equate the arrangement of the real world with that of the diagram. On reflection, this situation perhaps encapsulates modern man's dilemma when finding any megalith or circle.

Someone had scrawled "I did it" below the note describing the inconsistency.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Bronze Age adventures; the Andle Stone

Last weekend I spend a great afternon trucking about Derbyshire looking at megaliths and stone circles.

I set out armed with a few choice tools. The Modern Antiquarian by Julian Cope is a must-have gazeteer of all things megalithic. Its design is rather of-its-time and screams of the late 1990s, but it is still a thing of wonder. Plus you'll never loose it thanks to the hazard-orange and blue foil treatment on the cover. A canvas bag and leather jacket are staples of any self-respecting retronaut, and the former held my Nikon FM. I was really keen to get the thing out again as I've not used it for a couple of years and missed the satisfying pop-and-ku-thunk of the shutter. I also love the 70s braid strap I found for it, which kind of makes me feel like Dennis Hopper on assignment. The FM functions mechanically and does not require power - only the light meter uses the tiny batteries inserted under the chassis. Which is ace since they failed in the cold so I had to guess the exposure. Let's see how that pans out when I finish the reel of ISO400 black and white... All the photos you'll see are taken with my Samsung S3 (which I'm very impressed with).

Our first stop was the Andle Stone on Stanton Moore. This is a boulder sitting on a mound which has since had a dry stone wall added to one side. It has hand holds carved into one side and is ripe for climbing. Various bits of graffiti are engraved on its surface including dedications to servicemen from the nineteenth century. These give this vast, natural rock a weird air of po-faced-state-approval. There are bushes around much of the stone and from certain angles it pokes above the foliage like a nervous animal in a thicket. It's a sturdy thing and would undoubtedly have been a choice landmark for our ancestors.

Next up is Doll Tor.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The rise of rural terror

The Guardian has just published an excellent piece by Robert Macfarlane entitled The eeriness of the English countryside. In it Macfarlance charts the course of the pastoral in English horror and gives a great overview of the recent groundswell of interest in the topic. What I'd like to explore is the 'why'. I want to compare Macfarlane's theories on the contemporary rise with those of Adam Easterbrook in his essay on MR James' A Warning to the Curious from the BFI booklet that accompanied the DVD release of Ghost Stories for Christmas. Easterbrook concerns himself with the preoccupation with the genre in the 70s.

Macfarlance lays the blame at the feet of "an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism." This timult is the result of several things. The first is that we now live in "a phase of severe environmental damage" - things are lost (native species) and as a result mother nature is wreaking her revenge (powerful storms, flooding and droughts). The second factor is politics. Macfarlane argues that the right have 'cupcakeified' rural Britain turning it into a twee lifestyle choice while at the same time bleeding the rural poor to the point of breaking. The rural horror genre is a left wing response to this.

Easterbrook argues that the interest shown fourty-odd years ago was the result of much more substantial upheaval. The decade saw, "industrial strife, rising inflation and unemployment, terrorist attacks and the three day week". The population, he argues, resorted to the comfort of the pastoral tradition, and so the country chic of Laura Ashley and Fairport Convention were embraced. It was no surprise that the horror genre looked back to the stories of MR James and the like to provide its own dark view of the comfort zone.

I wonder if there is something of Easterbrook's argument about the 70s which can be applied today, in our post-9/11 world where Russia is rattling its sabres and home-grown bombers are, the tabloids encourage us to believe, hiding in dank terrace houses in the Midlands. The UK housing crisis means the countryside is both at risk from further development, while folk from the capital are forced to leave for the provinces (gasp!) in ever greater numbers simply in search of a place they can afford to live.

Above: A sceen from Blood on Satan's Claw, 1971

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