Monday, 28 December 2015

Devil's Dyke

No, this post is not about... whatever you're imagining.

Like most people, I've found the run up to Christmas pretty busy hence the lack of blogging of late. I've just returned from my pilgrimage back to see my family in Hertfordshire. While I was there I went to go an see the Devil's Dyke in the nearby village of Wheathampstead.

The Dyke is all that remains of what was possibly a massive Celtic fortified encampment surmounting a shallow plateau of raised land. We really don't know know much about it other than that, but there are several conjectures. One is that the Celts would have retreated to it in times of strife, and perhaps King Cunobelinus fought the Roman's there when Caesar invaded in 54BC. There isn't much evidence to prove or disprove this, but the Celtic-Roman connection has certainly embedded itself in public consciousness, as the local street names like 'Battle View' attest. The attribution of the dyke to the devil isn't something there seems to be a lot of literature about. It was common in history for all sorts of mildy unusual things to be explained as the work of the devil as a neat and theologically-sound way to account for unnatural phenomena. A massive ditch might well have warranted such an attribution.

The Dyke is certainly an impressive affair. Its sides are too steep to climb and the trees shade its bottom from the sun. The deepest part gets churned to mud in the winter, so walking through it is a task. One gets the impression of moving through an antediluvian region, somehow separated from the modern world above. When it is possible to climb the Eastern ridge one can see out onto the raised plane (known as "Belgic Oppidum"). These aren't so nearly managed that one can't imagine medieval farm workers tilling the land and discovering all manner of Satan's Claws uncovered by their ploughs.






Sunday, 8 November 2015

Stone tapes, terrifying meterorites and slap-bass jazz odysseys

It's been doing 'the rounds' on a lot of listings and blogs, so I make no pretence about being first-in here, but the BBC has broadcast a new radio version of Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape. Interestingly the producers chose to keep the tale set in the 1970s so the casual sexism is now a deliberate, strong theme (while the casual racism of the original has been excised). While it's a solid piece of spooky radio drama with a good human edge, it lacks the sheer bloody terror that the television original conjured up.

By happenstance I also listened to a reading of Lovecraft's The Colour Out Of Space. By contrast this tale doesn't rely on any sudden shocks - indeed, it's told in retrospect by the first person narrator. I found myself more terrified by the creeping, infectious horror in this than by the BBC radio play. The 'colour' gradually consumes a family of hapless farmers and it's thoroughly unsettling to watch them be progressively decimated.

I've also been rewatching a bit of The Mighty Boosh comedy series. I love the way that bizarre, grotesque characters like the Crack Fox and the Hitcher are updates to classic urban myth folklore. I have to say this timing wasn't great, as Julian Barratt (AKA Howard Moon) appears in the aforementioned The Stone Tape and I had a growing expectation that his character would suggest listening to some 'slap-bass oddysey' as a remedy to the group's ills.

You've got about a month left to catch The Stone Tape radio adaption here. Below is the reading of the Lovecraft tale.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Dimension-sliding brickwork

I've not blogged a lot of late due to spending lots of time repairing my broken Victorian house. One of the things which has become apparent as I've been stripping back the small bedroom is that the fabric of the structure is an onion skin. The process has revealed all sorts of time-capsule goodness - decades-old wallpaper, nails and hooks and nineteenth century lathe and plasterwork.

One of the most striking discoveries is that these houses are less solid than they appear. There are all sorts of nooks, crannies and voids hidden below the facia of the room (and this is still the case despite mine being solid wall construction - ie there is no wall cavity). This immediately brings to mind classic tales of horror like Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls and Nigel Kneale's Baby where voids reveal terrifying secrets*.

There is currently an excellent programme available to stream from Radio Four called Ghost Stories from Theatreland which I urge you to listen to. It touches on some of the current thinking on parapsychological phenomena, including the multiplicity of dimensions and 'glitches' in humans' ability to perceive time. While Kneale's The Stone Tape posits that the fabric of a place can record emotion, I wonder if capsule-voids might have perculiar properties too? Perhaps it's not that activity permeates solids, but instead that it can be contained by solids and escapes when their capsule is ruptured? Maybe these hidden apertures are conduits that puncture the general flow of time, or are protected pockets left undisturbed as time flows around them?

All this has got me slightly worried so I'm working quickly to plug all these temporal-nightmare wormholes as quickly as I can. I've seen Poltergeist and I know how these things end. It's a good job I don't have a massive dingy basement full of god-knows-what. Oh, wait a minute...


Sunday, 13 September 2015

Newstead Abbey

Earlier this summer I visited Newstead Abbey, just to the north of Nottingham. Any guide, including Wikipedia, will outline the history of the place (usually starting with a dry explanation that it was never an abbey but a priory) but the really interesting thing about it is its previous tenants and the psychic residue they have left.

Lord Byron is the main event here, famous for being 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'. He lived at the Abbey on-and-off from the time he inherited it until he left England permanently in 1816. The building was difficult and expensive to maintain but its ramshackle nature appealed to Byron's love of the ancient and forlorn. A combination of repair costs and the poet's abysmal financial acumen meant the property was sold-on in 1818.

But the proportionately short term of Byron's stay has left its mark. Beneath the well-tended and rather orderly restorations and redecorations there lurks something of the lunatic deviancy of the poet. When I visited the reflecting lake had been drained to leave a cracked surface of baked mud with the footprints of some explorer veering weirdly around the scum in the centre. Byron's bedroom is a naked room where all the plaster has been lond since hacked-off the walls to reveal the cold, chiselled stones of the buidling's fabric. These blocks are likely impregnated with the memory of whatever acts occurred in that den.

It is said that when Byron's great uncle died in 1798, leaving the estate to his wayward nephew, a vast swarm of crickets he kept at Newstead left the estate. One can imagine the neighbours being terrified by this biblical plague and what it might herald. Byron seems not to have disappointed them on this front.






Sunday, 16 August 2015

KML file of megalithic doom!

I've always been a bit frustrated when trying to find menhirs and other antiquarian goodness close to places I am visiting. Thus far I've used a combination of books (like Julian Cope's amazing Modern Antiquarian) and websites (like the associated themodernantiquarian.com), both of which are rather clunky in their own way. Books are naturally limited when plotting wilderness locations, and website interfaces are clunky and useless in the field when you've got no data connection. Both are equally bad at showing you what's in, say, 30 minutes of a place you're visiting.

However, I recently discovered that themodernantiquarian.com now offers a set of tools which can be used with Google Earth. So it's now possible to put in a postcode of a place you're going to, and see what's in the surrounding area. Joy! Now, like rats, you know you're never more than X number of miles from a megalith.

Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire. This is a shot from a reel of analogue film I've just got back. More coming soon.

Monday, 27 July 2015

May Queen throne in Lustleigh

Earlier this summer I went on what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to the South West of the country - an area thick with folklore and legend. While there I was taken to the village of Lustleigh in Devon. Visitors to this picturesque civil parish are greeted by the quaint little church and the stone cross on the tiny green in front. However, there are older traditions kept alive in this settlement.

Further down the hill is an orchard bounded by a tiny brook. The field has been put to use as a children's play area, but looming over the grass is the largest of the many boulders which protrude from the earth and the top of this stone has been carved into a throne. This is the seat of the May Queen - the girl who, in true Wicker Man style is chosen to personify the May Day holiday and the fair weather and fecundity of the spring. My guide told me that, once a year, all the young girls are dressed in white smocks and line-up in front of the church to be blessed by the vicar, in a ritual that seemingly embodies the Christian aptitude for subsuming much older customs into liturgical practice.

The names of the Queens are carved onto the rock face and date back to 1968. No doubt the re wakening of public interest in folk ritual was the impetus to begin carving the names. I'd be interested to learn if earlier names are recorded anywhere, or if the tradition was broken before that year.





Saturday, 11 July 2015

Occult iconography on film: Hardware

Blogging's been a bit slow here due to lots of renovation work on the Tears of Envy secret bunker. But with a bit of down-time I'd like to start what will hopefully be a series of posts. Then again, "The road to Hell..." and all that. So we'll see.

After seeing the excellent Lost Soul... documentary I've been re-watching Richard Stanley's back catalogue. I was surprised to see in Hardware the appearance of a pentagram. It appears when the killer robot is in its death-throws, and the viewer is taken 'inside' its head to see its virtual circuitry. The symbol appears for just a moment, but it's enough for us to register and so speculate on the nefarious origins of this maniacal machine. Was it programmed by occult fanatics? Has it been infected and corrupted by evil magicians? The possibilities are enticing.

While the evil connotations are adequately conveyed, it's worth noting that the pentacle, or pentagram, is 'good' side up. One point stands at the top and the 'horns' point downwards. Some authorities including Eliphas Levi assert that the symbol is only a mark of evil when the dual points are reared, mimicking the horns of the goat (and so the devil himself). Prior to the middle ages, the symbol is not uncommon, but seems to carry no evil association.



Saturday, 20 June 2015

Whitby abbey

I've been sitting on these photos a bit but it's only now that I've found time to process them. As mentioned in a previous post, I visited the seaside town of Whitby earlier this year and spent a couple of lovely afternoons walking around the Abbey and neighbouring church.

The fishing port of Whitby has a long and interesting history, and consequently quite a few claims-to-fame. One of its most exciting (and lucrative) is the Dracula connection.  Bram Stoker was a visitor to the town, and set parts of his famous novel there. The abbey fell into ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The hulking stone carcass that rises far above the town is no doubt one of the reasons why Stoker chose it as a setting. The craggy skeleton perches on a cliff and consequently the ruin is one of the first things you see as you come over the moorland from the south west from inland.

Most of the southern walls have tumbled down so visitors are able to walk right through the length of the trancept and nave and look out over the substantial grounds. There are some wonderful scultpural details still visible, and the nearby almshouses also retain some excellent corbles shaped like heads. It was bright and sunny when we visited, but I can imagine it being utterly terrifying on a dark, wet and windy winter's night.


Although the abbey provides a wonderful backdrop in Dracula, it's actually the graveyard of the neighbouring church of St Mary's which hosts one of the key scenes in the novel - where Mina discovers 'something dark' looming over the prostate from of her friend Lucy. I took quite a few shots of the graveyard with my analogue Nikon camera and have yet to process the film, so I'll post them in due course.





Sunday, 14 June 2015

The sad state of Nottingham's cemeteries

A few weeks ago I went back to Nottigham's Rock Cemetery, which I've previously blogged about. It was a great oppotunity to do some research on vampires in preparation for my trip to Whitby, which I'll blog about soon.

Despite it being a sunny day with the cherry blossoms blooming, it was sad to see that there has been a lot of vandalism and pillaging. Several of the niches containing ashes had their doors ripped off and the contents strewn about. Another monument had clealry had some kind of (no doubt sculpted) mandala torn away. The resulting carcass was left with a kind of internal spine of brick exposed - a gaping maw howling in rage at the perpetrators.

Sad times.


Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Lost Soul

I am thankful to my pal Steve who gave me a heads-up that the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau was playing in Nottingham. I went to see it a few nights ago and I can assure you it's a corker.

The producers did an excellent job of giving what felt like quite a fair appraisal of the ill-fated exploits of the cast and crew on their remote set in Northern Australia. While it is clear that Stanley's vision would have made a far more interesting film than actually emerged, the trials and tribulations are thoroughly investigated and the documentary excites on a level beyond the simple teasing of a hypothetical masterpiece. On this note, many of the interviewees (including Stanley himself) are hilarious and special mention should go to Marco Hofschneider who seems like a really nice person caught in the centre of an increasingly bizarre madhouse (culminating in being, quite literally, punched "in the nuts" by the dwarf who went on to steal his screentime). Notably absent are Val Kilmer and David Thewlis, the first of whom comes off very badly, while the latter is barely mentioned.

Stanley is refreshingly dry and up-front about his interest in, and use of, witchcraft. He explains that he asked "Skip", a friend of his, to perform some magical fixes to get him the gig. I am not sure how serious to take him when Stanley goes on to exlain that his misfortunes were due to Skip falling ill and all his work unravling. This results in lightening hitting the filmmakers' mother's house and hyenas being seen by her neighbours (and there were hyenas on the wallpaper where Stanley was staying... so it all makes sense, y'know?). I did notice that on the bookshelf behind Stanley was the book Werewolves and Shape Shifters: Encounters with the Beasts Within by John Skipp and I wondered if this was the "Skip" referred to.

Regardless of the merits of how he was treated, the experiece was clearly very hard for Stanley. He retreated afterwards to a remote ruin in Montségur, France where he has only more recently returned to the commercial world of film. He freely admits that he feels far more at home amongst the stones of the Cathar strongholds and the memories of the dead than he did amongst the machinery of Hollywood. He likens himself to a Moreau figure, and I hope the world will remember him for his pioneering and unique vision and not the filmic bloodbath in which it culminated.

Some of the amazing concept art produced by Graham Humphreys for the movie. These hint at the far deeper and more coherent themes which Stanley wanted to explore.

Marco Hofschneider - stuck it out despite being patronised by Brando, bullied by Kilmer and puched in the groin by two-foot-tall Spanish dwarf

Sunday, 17 May 2015

In the Mind’s Eye

The excellent John Coulthart posted this video earlier in the week. It's a sceptical looks at ghost phenomena broadcast in 1977.

The documentary concerns the 'Phantom Vicar of Ratcliffe Wharf'. It transpires this spectre is not all he was reputed to be, and the (occasionally hokey) journey the viewer is taken on delves into an analysis of how folklore is constructed and perpetuated.

The examination is rather cursory, but the show is endearing for being wonderful window into 70s London. Central to the human story is writer Frank Smyth - a bearded writer whose very serious brow looms earnestly over his pint glass. He would fit right into an East End hipster coffee-house in 2015. However, it's the shots of London's then-undeveloped docklands which excite me. The glittering glass and steel monuments to commerce which now occupy the region are nowhere to be seen, and it's easy to imagine how the dank, weed-strewn streets captured nearly forty years ago would be fertile territory for stories of murder and greed to breed.


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Nine Ladies

Not to be confused with the West Country's Nine Maidens, the Nine Ladies is a smaller formation not far from Dol Tor and the Andle Stone. Much like Dol Tor, the stones are diminutive, with barely a foot or two protruding from the soil out of the flat-ish plain of Stanton Moor. They form a fiarly organised ring, but a tenth stone, discovered in the 1970s, now adds to their number. A King Stone lies outside the circle.

The winds which had buffeted the landscape had subsided by the time we arrived at the Ladies, the last stop on our Megalighic trip. The woods that surround the stones stand at a respsectful distance and give them shelter. The sun had come out by this time, and the clearing was warm and peaceful. The King Stone watches over his ladies as they, in turn, watch whoever stands in their midst. I can't help thinking that, as so many menhirs were erected on high ground, watching was an important part of their duties.

But who watches the watchmen?




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