The Hotel Hoax and the Wholly Fooled

Infamously ripped off wholesale by Dan Brown for The Da Vinci CodeThe Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is a comfortingly silly work of conspiracy theory. The book has its roots in the work of actor and Doctor Who screenwriter Henry Lincoln, who on holiday in France in 1969 came across Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, a book by Gérard de Sède discussing an enigma surrounding a small town in the Languedoc region of southern France.

Fascinated, Lincoln would go on to produce three documentary films for the BBC’s Chronicle strand discussing the mystery – The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem? in 1972, The Painter, the Priest and the Devil in 1974, and The Shadow of the Templars in 1979 – with these films being the first time the English-speaking world was exposed to the mystery. Each time, Lincoln would revise and deepen his proposed answer to the enigma, as he perceived yet further hidden depths to the story. Joined by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, his investigations would eventually see the release of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982.

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Burning Tensions and High Stakes In the Civil War

Released in the States as The Conqueror Worm for the sake of implying a connection to the successful run of Poe adaptations that Roger Corman had helmed and Vincent Price had starred in, Witchfinder General only shares Vincent Price in common with those movies. It was directed by Michael Reeves, an up and coming talent whose career was cut short when he died shortly after making this of an accidental overdose, and produced for Tigon, a production company making a bid to outdo Hammer by offering up films with similar subject matter fronted by horror icons and often featuring content more extreme – and more imaginative – than Hammer themselves were willing to offer at the time. (The production was also co-funded by AIP, home of the Poe adaptations – hence the retitling, hence the involvement of Price.)

The story takes place during the English Civil War (the famous mid-17th Century one, not the earlier one with Stephen and Matilda). Richard is a soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, fighting the Royalist forces whilst hoping to make a future for himself and his fiancee Sara once the war is done. Their happy plans, however, are disrupted when their sleepy home village is visited by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) whilst Richard is away on duty. Hopkins, accompanied by his disreputable assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell), roams around the country exploiting the disorder and panic caused by the war, showing up in towns and villages which have written to them asking for their help and presiding over witch trials that make those in Salem look like a model of balanced and fair jurisprudence.

They are well paid for this work, and they relish the opportunity to torture their suspects to their hearts’ content (though Stearne is much more honest with himself and others about how much he enjoys this part of his work than Hopkins, who maintains a holier-than-thou facade. They’ve been summoned to the village to interrogate the local priest – Sara’s uncle – and Hopkins wastes little time in extorting sexual favours out of Sara in return for stopping the torture. Eventually, Stearne ends up raping Sara, Hopkins loses interest in her, and her uncle and two local women are eventually strung up for witchcraft. When he returns and discovers what has happened, Richard embarks on a campaign of revenge that he’s determined will put an end to Hopkins’ reign of terror – but what will he end up losing before the job is done?

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All The World’s a Text Adventure, and All the Men and Women Merely Players…

It’s January 1603, and it’s a Plague year in London. You are struggling printer Richard Fletcher, and you receive an invitation to dinner with an old friend of yours, John Croft. After you arrive at Croft’s home, however, you find all is not well – and it stems from Croft’s relationship with Christopher Marlowe and a curious unfinished Marlowe play that Croft had been trying to complete with help from William Shakespeare, entitled The King In Yellowe

Adapted by Jimmy Maher from a Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG scenario by Justin Tynes (the original adventure was published in Strange Aeons, a set of scenarios set in time periods not typically addressed by the game), The King of Shreds and Patches is a remarkably accomplished text adventure, with several important strengths. The first is the extremely high standard of writing; the descriptions are vivid but also to-the-point, and usually succeed at making sure that important matters are highlighted. More or less anything which the text draws your attention to in the area descriptions is something that can be usefully examined, for instance, and each and every description contributes something to the atmosphere.

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Still Warmth In These Bones

Scared Stiff is one of a few short story anthologies in Ramsey Campbell’s back catalogue to have a rather special status. As with most authors who produce a large number of short stories over a long career, most of Campbell’s collections are basically state-of-the-Campbell benchmarks, a grab-bag of the crop of material he’s churned out since his last significant collection along with, perhaps, an older item or two which hasn’t been previously collected and maybe a brand-new story if you’re lucky. That’s no criticism of them – when your ratio of hits to misses is as good as Campbell any random collection of stories is going to be pretty decent – but it does mean they tend to blend into each other.

Then there’s other collections which stand out for other reasons. There’s The Inhabitant of the Lake, for instance, which stands out simply because it was his debut collection and because it was so overwhelmingly dominated by the stylistic influence of H.P. Lovecraft. His second collection, Demons By Daylight, is perhaps even more significant; written largely as a piece, it found Campbell going the extra distance to find a distinct voice of his own.

Scared Stiff is significant not because of its impact on Campbell’s career but because it’s a thematic collection. Originally issued in 1987 before emerging in an expanded edition (with some stories from the 1990s and 2000s) in 2001, as its subtitle notes it’s all about sex and death, with a major emphasis on sexuality. These stories are explicit but not in a gratuitous fashion, because one of the big things Campbell does here is make sexuality central to the story, rather than lazily tossing in a sex scene to spice up an otherwise slack portion of a story.

All the sexuality and consent-related content warnings apply to this discussion, by the way; if you don’t want to read about rape and various other violations of consent at all in a horror story, no matter how thoughtfully the subjects are handled, this really isn’t going to be your bag and that’s fine.

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Ferretnibbles 6 – Blood and Black Death

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, here’s another set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, I’m taking the opportunity to talk a little about a couple of very different horror movies – a Mario Bava giallo from the 1960s and a German-British historical horror feature from 2010.

Blood and Black Lace

Countess Christina Como (Eva Bartok), recently widowed, has converted her expansive mansion into the hub of a high fashion empire, and is holding a grand salon there displaying her designers’ latest creations. Meanwhile, her designers, models, and other employees are embroiled in all sorts of tangled personal affairs, ranging from the deeply embarrassing to the actively illegal. Thus, when a mysterious masked figure begins a campaign of murder and terror against them, they fail spectacularly to co-operate with the police. The confusion allows the killer to keep things going to a terrifying extent, and as individual members of the salon try their own snooping, it’s hard to say who is truly determined to find the murderer, who is just trying to cover their back, and who has far more malevolent ends in mind.

Though Mario Bava’s preceding The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered the first giallo film, I’d argue that it’s with Blood and Black Lace that Bava both hit on the archetypal giallo formula (right down to the killer’s garb) and, more importantly, the distinctive giallo atmosphere; The Girl Who Knew Too Much is just slightly too jolly and comedic for me to feel like it’s a true giallo – some of the comedy was, of course, added in the American cut of the movie (Evil Eye), but it was still present in the original. Conversely, Blood and Black Lace has the same mix of aesthetic luxury, eroticism, and horror that is distinctive to giallo and which The Girl Who Knew Too Much didn’t quite hit.

Bava shows a talent for directing truly chilling death sequences – low on gore, but the implications of what is happening are ably communicated to prompt the imagination to fill in the terrible blanks. The sheer violence exhibited by the killer is shocking to behold and renders the killings thoroughly untitillating, and like I said above the classic “raincoat, hat, gloves, mask” getup of the killer created a giallo archetype, and Bava has a great eye to throw in a shot here and there which underscores the terrible nature of what is happening. (See, for instance, a shot of a statue of Zeus chasing after some nymph as the killer drags away the corpse of the first victim, or the obscene tableau established by a suit of armour that has fallen on another victim.)

Bava also breaks from the standard whodunnit formula in a major way by revealing the killer’s identity well before the climax, and showing their planning process from the inside for the final go-around. To be honest, I find the movie comes a little unstuck after that, taking a bit took long to work its way through the final stages of the plot, but the movie is nonetheless still a classic of its subgenre. I particularly liked Thomas Ranier in his role as the disapproving police detective whose efforts to solve the case keep being tripped up by the self-serving lies and chicanery of the main characters.

Black Death

It is the 1300s, and as the title implies the Black Death is sweeping Europe. In a monastery struggling to contain the infection, Brother Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), has been kept quarantined, but is let out to join the prayers for one of his fallen comrades when he shows no symptoms of the plague. The next day, though, we see him stealing food and slipping out into the town to rendezvous with Averill (Kimberly Nixon), a woman that he is carrying on a secret affair with. Witnessing the dead piled up in the streets, Osmund tells Averill to take the supplies he’s obtained and go and hide in the forest until the plague passes; she ponders whether God is punishing the two of them for their sin, and whilst Osmund denies this, he also refuses to come with her, being willing to break his vows but not willing to abandon them entirely.

Osmund’s faith and character will soon undergo sterner tests, however, for he soon takes up a challenge his brothers fear to take: to accompany the Bishop’s envoy Ulric (Sean Bean) and his mercenaries on a mission as a guide and as theological counsel. Rumour has it that a certain village in the marshes close to where Osmund was raised is not only completely untouched by the plague, but is home to a necromancer who can return the dead to life. Ulric and Osmund’s task is to establish the truth of these stories; if the village has turned to Godless and sacrilegious ways to protect them, then they must be discredited and punished less others in their desperation abandon the Church.

A German-British coproduction (the story development and ideas came from the British side of the equation, the funding and locations from the Germans), this was directed by Christopher Smith, who made substantial changes to the conclusion of the film, which as originally scripted by Dario Poloni took the movie down an unambiguously supernatural route. In contrast to this, Smith goes for a more subtle, psychological approach, in keeping with his bid to go for a grimly realistic depiction of the time. You could probably characterise this as a full-blown grimdark piece, in fact, though frankly the Black Death was such a nightmarish period of history in Europe that if you don’t go dark with it you aren’t facing up to just how awful it was. Smith even gets minor historical points right, like remembering that the medieval church as an institution was more concerned with heresy than it was with witchcraft, but that the Black Death saw sentiments against witches becoming substantially more prevalent.

The group’s journey through the plague-ravaged landscape early on not only helps to establish the distinct characters of the various mercenaries, but also helps to drive home just how apocalyptic the Black Death was. Remember, this was a disease where if you say it decimated the population, pedants will point out that if anything you are underplaying just how awful it was, with recent research suggesting that about half the population of medieval Europe died of it. Panicing mobs burning a witch or turning to murderous banditry because they can’t think of anything else to do, entire depopulated villages, the discovery of plague within the party itself – all these incidents play out on the journey and make it obvious that the Bishop’s worries about people turning away from the Church are not mere control freakery. We are watching these people work their way through a disaster of such a magnitude that every certainty in their life has been brushed aside and the entire social order is disintegrating not because of any great revolutionary impulse on the part of anyone but simply because people are dying at too great a pace to keep it together.

The attention to detail extends to the costuming and sets; of the latter, the finely reproduced marshland village that is the destination of Ulric and Osmund’s mission is magnificently realised. As far as the acting goes, everyone does a smashing job; Sean Bean is at his Sean Beaniest and gets an appropriately Sean Beany death, Carice van Houten is great as the villagers’ spooky overlord, and Tim “Lord Percy” McInnerny has a great turn as Hob, the creepily welcoming village spokesman. (In fact, I wouldn’t have believed he could have pulled off such a sinister role had I not previously seen his appearance in Edge of Darkness.)

The ending, in which Osmund finds himself becoming a killer as brutal and merciless as any in Ulric’s band (and he’s murdered at least one person for absolutely no good reason, though he is more than capable of denying this), and in which it becomes apparent that the entire mission has done no good at all beyond murdering a village full of people who just wanted to be left alone, is the final touch of bleakness on what is a decidedly bleak prospect. Although it is possible to see the film as a slam on organised religion in general, to me it comes across more as a condemnation of what happens when religion or irreligion alike take to violence to serve their ends.

Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s the late 1880s, and royal party boy Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor – grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne – has been having all manner of fun. Encountering Annie Clark, a Catholic woman who works behind the till at a sweet shop just across the road from Eddy’s favourite rent boy brothel, he begins an affair with her which culminates in an ill-advised secret marriage and the birth of a child – one who, strictly speaking, would then be in line for the throne.

Queen Victoria will not stand for this, and she uses all the covert influence available to her to make sure that Eddy and Annie are forcibly separated. Among the resources available to her is the power structure of British Freemasonry. With members riddled throughout the British aristocracy and respectable professions, the Masons were a microcosm of the establishment of the time, and a large cross-section of Victoria’s male family members were Masons. Between that and a perennial desire for Royal patronage, it was no surprise that the Brotherhood was willing to do favours for Victoria. In this case, this included enlisting Dr William Henry Gull – Freemason, physician, and mystic – to the task of performing an operation on Annie to profoundly damage her mental capabilities. Even if she could get someone to listen to her story and she were able to coherently tell it through the cognitive fog imposed on her, nobody would give it any credence.

However, Annie’s fate wasn’t unknown to all. Marie Kelly, an East End prostitute and friend of Annie’s, is aware of what happened, and also knows that painter Walter Sickert – who had accompanied Eddy on his visits to the seedier side of town – is aware of what’s happened. When she and a group of her fellow prostitutes are shaken down for protection money they don’t have by a local gang, they hit on a plan of blackmailing Sickert for cash. Alas, they get greedy, ask for more money than Sickert has available, and when he turns to his Royal connections for help word of the matter gets back to Victoria, who dispatches Gull to silence the women, permanent-style.

Alas, Gull’s work is no clean, surgical strike this time around. Having suffered a stroke, Gull has become prone to mystic visions and occult obsessions, and he regards the work to be done in averting Royal embarrassment as a mere pretext for his true goal. The 20th Century is looming, and Gull believes that by conducting the murders in a particular manner and pattern, aligned with the occult geometry of London, he can turn them into a ritual act which will shape the very nature of the coming century. His intention is to make it safe from the rising tide of feminist and other progressive challenges to the status quo, winning the day for what he sees as the inherently masculine force of Apollonian rationality. The actual outcome is, well, the history we got…

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