The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies:
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by Bernice M. Murphy
It may seem strange to devote a space dedicated to resurrecting “lost and neglected” personages who have made an unsung contribution to the Gothic and Horror genres to a writer whose work frequently topped the bestseller lists and whose death earlier this year occasioned warm tributes in most major newspapers. And yet, whilst Ira Levin could hardly be called obscure, his immense contribution to genre fiction has yet to be fully appreciated; the breadth of his fertile imagination perhaps inevitably overshadowed by the lasting resonance of his two most famous fictional creations – Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972).
Levin, who died at the age of 78, could, with considerable justification be called the father of the modern popular thriller. His oeuvre included works of Science Fiction (This Perfect Day, 1970), supernatural horror, and suspense, and he often combined elements from all of these genres (as in The Boys from Brazil). Levin was particularly good at coming up with resonant “high-concept” style premises for his novels, most of which can be summarised in a single intriguing sentence:
An arrogant young college student decides to murder his wealthy girlfriend when her unplanned-for pregnancy jeopardises his future plans (A Kiss Before Dying, 1952).
A young mother-to-be suspects that her unborn child may be the Anti-Christ (Rosemary’s Baby)
A holocaust survivor discovers that the Nazis have successfully (and repeatedly!) cloned Hitler (The Boys from Brazil)
A suburban housewife grows to believe that the women in her new suburban community have been replaced by submissive androids (The Stepford Wives).
in the classical gothic. Though Roman Polanski’s film version is better known today, Levin’s novel remains as readable as ever, and should be considered a significant precursor to the block-busting work of horror writers such as Stephen King and Peter Straub in the 1970s. Along with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby helped convince publishers that there was a genuine appetite for mass-market horror fiction. Furthermore, Levin’s spare prose style and tight plotting – none of his novels run much over 200 pages – could teach a thing or two to the kind of horror authors who won’t say in two words what they can drag out to a full paragraph.
of some men to come to terms with the then burgeoning women’s rights movement, The Stepford Wives remains one of Levin’s finest achievements, if only for the way in which it slyly dramatises elements of Betty Freidan’s famous 1963 tract The Feminine Mysique.
until Thomas Harris’s insultingly shoddy Hannibal Rising, had the dubious distinction, in my eyes at least, of being the most ill-advised literary sequel ever published. The novel also concludes with a cop out ending to beat all cop-out-endings… One can only hope that Levin was at least paid well for this monumentally unnecessary act of wanton shark jumping. Still, despite the odd blip on his C.V., Ira Levin still deserves a great deal of recognition for his ability to bring horror and unease into the contemporary, every day world with a deftness and slyly acute sense of social observation that puts many of those who followed his lead to shame.
Having started his career as a television writer whilst barely out of college, Levin published his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying (1952), when he was only 23. The novel is almost as good a portrait of a greedy, socially ambitious sociopath as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and has been twice adapted for the screen (most recently in a rather dire 1991 film starring Sean Young and Matt Dillon), despite the fact that the narratives major highlight – a devastating and audacious mid-story plot twist – could only be successfully carried out in print because it involves an audacious piece of authorial misdirection. Though the novel was fairly successful, Levin first came to major public prominence as a playwright, author of “No Time for Sergeants” (1955), “Drat! The Cat” (1968) and, most famously, of all, the fiendishly constructed thriller “Death Trap” (1978).
Levin made a triumphant return to popular fiction in 1967 with the publication of Rosemary’s Baby (1967), a taut, intelligent and genuinely compelling variation upon the “paranoid female in genuine peril” trope so often employed
In The Stepford Wives (1972) Levin was, superficially at least, treading familiar ground: once more, a trusting wife is fatally deceived by the murderously self-centred man in her life. Two factors make the basic premise of The Stepford Wives concept so resonant. The first is the way in which, as Robert Beuka has observed, the story dramatises contemporary anxieties regarding the changing role of women in the home and in society at large. The second is the manner in which this aspect of the novel is intertwined with a savage critique of consumerism and materialism as it relates to the suburban way of life. The novel’s premise also reflects a recurring preoccupation of 1970s popular culture: whilst the 1950s and 60s had frequently seen films and television shows in which people were ‘taken over’ or ‘replaced’ by hostile alien life forms, during the seventies aliens had in many cases been usurped by the products of man-made technology, just as Levin’s typically sympathetic heroine, Joanna Eberhart, will, by the end of the novel have been murdered and replaced by her own robotic double. Part blackly comic satire, part genuinely affecting mediation on the lot of the disillusioned suburban housewife and the inability
Another novel which sounded vaguely ridiculous in outline but was actually quite compelling was The Boys From Brazil (1976), in which Levin once again combined outright Science Fiction and the conspiracy thriller. The film version, in which Gregory Peck starred as Joseph Mengele, and Sir Laurence Olivier starred as a similarly decrepit Nazi-hunter is probably better known, if only for proving that whilst aging Golden-Age actresses (Crawford, Davis, De Havilland) could only find work during old age portraying homicidal grotesques (or their victims,) their male counterparts could always find employment as Nazi’s. Levin’s last published novel, 1991’s disappointing Sliver, if decidedly uneven, was at least yet another typically prescient paranoid thriller which critiqued the decades growing surveillance culture.
As Sliver demonstrated, Levin’s work could on occasion be below par. His follow up to Rosemary’s Baby, a pseudo-Orwellian dystopian SF novel entitled This Perfect Day (1970) is deeply derivative, overly simplistic, and very mediocre. Worse again is the absolutely dreadful follow-up to Rosemary’s Baby entitled Son of Rosemary (1997), which,
by Ailise Bulfin
‘The Creator of Dr Nikola.’
(The Windsor Magazine, Dec 1896)
Though he was one of the most popular authors of his own period, Guy Newell Boothby’s reputation did not survive much beyond his early death in 1905. This prolific writer produced a staggering fifty-three novels in the short decade of his writing career, all characterised by a breathless, lightweight, plot-driven style, with many elements of the gothic blended into this heady mixture. Following his arrival in London from the then British colony of South Australia in 1894, the rise of his literary career was meteoric. His first book, On the Wallaby (1894), was an account of his peregrinations through South East Asia and Australia, after running out of funds on a prior attempt to reach London and having to work his way home. According to family legend, the dire poverty he faced on this journey led him to accept any kind of employment he could get: ‘This meant working before the mast, stoking in ocean tramps, attending in a Chinese opium den in Singapore, digging in the Burmah Ruby fields, acting, prize fighting, cow punching…’ * and finally ending up as a pearl diver off the north Queensland coast, before making an arduous overland trek home across the Australian continent. All of which formative experience provided Boothby with a stock of colonial adventures and assumptions that informed most of his writing.
By October 1895, Boothby had completed three further novels, including A Bid for Fortune, or Dr Nikola’s Vendetta, which introduced Dr Nikola, his most memorable character, and the one which launched his career. Nikola captured the popular imagination from the publication of the first instalment of the series, with his picture on the billboards, the novels on the bestseller lists, theatre productions on the London stage, even a racehorse named Dr Nikola running by the late 1890s. By the end of 1896 Boothby was comfortably established as a rising popular author as an interview in the Windsor magazine attests. Here Boothby made the startling revelation that after only two years as a professional writer, he was now working on his seventeenth novel, and gave tips to aspiring young writers.
possibly brought on as a result of overwork. The following sardonic 1899 poem from the Academy magazine attests to the impression Boothby had made upon the literary profession during his short career:
Lamenting the declining interest in more serious work, it wryly concludes:
Nor do I presume to suggest which is greater: George Meredith – King, or Guy Boothby – Dictator.
Boothby’s oeuvre is pervaded by an array of intriguing and subversive villains whose larger than life characters eclipse the unremarkable English protagonists. They range from the classic supernatural fiends of fin-de-siècle gothic, to deformed freaks (a particular penchant of Boothby’s), to sophisticated international master criminals that anticipate the adversaries of Ian Fleming’s Bond character. Nikola, the best known of these, is a distinctive combination of proto-typical Bond villain and Mephistophelean mad scientist, encapsulated in a refined, debonair and disconcertingly foreign exterior. He graced the pages of a series of five novels, each essentially turning upon the extraordinary machinations of the devilish doctor in pursuit of his arcane and nefarious schemes, with a hapless English dupe in tow, against a variety of international backdrops. Suave, striking, cosmopolitan and accompanied by his familiar, a fiendish black cat named Apollyon, Nikola’s debut appearance is memorable, and ably reinforced by the illustrations of Stanley L. Wood, who emphasises the brooding, arresting quality of Nikola’s eyes, and habitually depicts him with the great black cat poised upon his shoulder, glaring at the reader with similar malevolent intensity.
As well as commanding a global network of dedicated, ruthless agents, Nikola is revealed to be a devotee of the occult and master of an array of extraordinary mental talents, including mind-reading and mesmerism. The mid-point of A Bid for Fortune provides a rare glimpse of Nikola in a home setting, a kind of laboratory-museum hybrid which he has established in Port Said, Egypt. The remarkable contents of his room include oriental weaponry, implements of black magic, a living collection of human freaks including a ‘Burmese monkey-boy’, and a dissecting table where Nikola, in Moreau-ian fashion, is busy dismembering ‘an animal strangely resembling a monkey.’
Once again, the illustrations amply represent the foreign villain in all his threatening degeneracy.
Like much contemporary fin-de-siècle gothic, the revenge motif dominates Boothby’s works. It is the unifying theme of the Nikola novels, in which a series of complex, vengeance-driven schemes are unleashed by Nikola against his adversaries, among whom colonial governors figure prominently – interesting given that several members of Boothby’s family were senior Australian colonial officials. And it pervades Pharos the Egyptian which contains one of the largest-scale and most successful revenge plots enacted against England in contemporary fiction. It is possible that despite his success, the Anglo-Australian Boothby may have suffered from feelings of colonial inferiority, of not being fully accepted in the imperial capital, and that these sentiments fuelled such fantasies of revenge upon its citizens and its dominions. Pharos makes a landmark contribution to the vengeful mummy narrative which was emerging in this period in opposition to narratives of mummy romance, hitherto the dominant mode of fictionalising these supernatural entities. The vengeful mummy was such a compelling trope that it transcended the popular fiction of the fin-de-siècle period to become a recurrent cultural icon of film in the twentieth century. Similarly, the international master criminal, of whom Boothby’s Nikola is the prototype, became a stock figure of twentieth century film. Thus as well as acting as a veritable index to the social and cultural concerns of their own period through their transparent rehashing of current events, prevailing theories and popular themes, Boothby’s novels were influential in establishing two key tropes of the cinematic age, which persist long after the novels themselves have faded into obscurity.
* Cited in Paul Depasquale, Guy Boothby: His Life and Work (Seacombe Gardens, South Australia: Pioneer Books, 1982), p. 17
The author gratefully acknowledges a Government of Ireland Scholarship from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
The old order passes, the new order comes,
And Fiction to-day as a trade simply ‘hums’ …
The public, who pay, name the tunes of their choice,
And the novelist-merchant, by heeding their voice,
By pouring his tales in the phonograph’s ear,
At the rate of four six-shilling thrillers a year,
A mansion (by Maple), with everything fitting,
And once every week a photographer’s sitting…
His height was considerably below the average, his skull was as small as his shoulders were broad. But it was not his stature, his shoulders, or the size of the head which caused the curious effect I have elsewhere described. It was his eyes, the shape of his face, the multitudinous wrinkles that lined it, and, above all, the extraordinary colour of his skin, that rendered his appearance so repulsive. To understand what I mean you must think first of old ivory, and then endeavour to realize what the complexion of a corpse would be like after lying in an hermetically sealed tomb for many years. Blend the two, and you will have some dim notion of the idea I am trying to convey. His eyes were small, deeply sunken, and in repose apparently devoid of light and even of life.
‘Mr Guy Boothby on his favourite pony.’
(The Windsor Magazine, Feb 1901).
A later interview is accompanied by photos of a stouter and more affluent Boothby engaged in country pursuits in his impressive, new, forty-acre Thames-side residence. As the contemporary literary press observed, ‘Boothby … found story-writing not only easy and pleasant, but a rapid means of providing for the hobbies of a country gentleman.’
At the height of his career, Boothby was one of the most financially successful novelists of the time, earning an estimated £20,000 a year. It was not, however, enough to sustain the lavish lifestyle he had adopted. He was forced to keep writing at a tremendous rate to maintain it, dictating his novels onto a phonograph for transcription by a team of secretaries, while the quality of his output steadily declined. His career was cut short when in February 1905, at the early age of 37, he died suddenly of pneumonia, quite
‘The black cat looked through the smoke at the three men.’ A Bid for Fortune
Boothby’s most gothic character is the eponymous, undead, ancient Egyptian high-priest of the 1899 bestseller Pharos the Egyptian, which presents one of deadliest threats to white European civilisation to be found in late-Victorian gothic fiction. After inheriting a collection of artefacts including a magnificent sarcophagus from his Egyptologist father, mild-mannered English artist, Cyril Forrester, becomes enmeshed in the designs of a seemingly modern-day Egyptian, Pharos, who turns up on his doorstep intent on obtaining the sarcophagus. Unsurprisingly Pharos turns out to be its original occupant, and his attempt to retrieve it only the personal part of a wider quest to exact vengeance on all Europe for its interference in Egypt. Pharos has been cursed with eternal life by the ancient Egyptian gods and designated the architect of their revenge against those guilty of plundering modern Egypt. Falling under the sway of Pharos’s powerful mesmeric will, Forrester is lured to Egypt where Pharos infects him with a virulent plague. On their return journey, under Pharos’s direction, he spreads this plague westwards from Constantinople across Europe to London, leaving millions dead in his wake. Pharos’s malevolent character is evident from the novel’s opening, in which Forrester witnesses him enjoying the spectacle of a nocturnal suicide in the Thames. This incident also provides the reader with their first description of Pharos, a classic Boothbian combination of supernatural invader and misshapen monstrosity:
Dr Nikola in his laboratory in Port Said. Frontispiece of A Bid for Fortune
‘So distorted was his countenance that I instinctively recoiled from him in horror.’ Pharos the Egyptian (London, 1899).
by Graham Tugwell
A rotting corpse stalks through the night, animated only by the desire to exact vengeance upon the lovers who murdered him...
An obnoxious sweatshop boss is left to burn alive, his lips sewn shut, his hands sewn together...
An old man is slain, and when his murderers return to dispose of the body, they find him armed and waiting, for it wasn’t him they killed, but his identical Siamese twin...
These chilling tales of irony-laden revenge are characteristic of the horror stories published by the Entertainment Comics company in the early years of the 1950s. The architect behind these tales of bone-chilling terror was Bill Gaines, who together with Al Feldstein and a stable of young artists produced a series of comics that exploded the boundaries of graphic art and define the horror comic to this day. Born in 1922 William M. Gaines was the son of publisher M.C. Gaines, who had been instrumental in bringing characters such as Superman and Wonder Woman to the attention of the world, and to whom the invention of the modern format comicbook is attributed. After his father’s untimely death in 1947 Bill Gaines inherited “Educational Comics”, a company established by the elder Gaines two years before to promote literacy and learning through titles such as Picture Stories from the Bible and Picture Stories from American History. These titles proved more popular with education-conscious parents than children and by the time of the elder Gaines’ death were haemorrhaging money.
Bill Gaines had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. He had trained to be a high school teacher, but his mother insisted he take over the failing family business. From the outset he showed little interest in the comics business, rarely reading his father’s output and as publisher attending the office only once a week. However, education’s loss would prove to be comics’ gain. Bill Gaines would achieve something that his father had been unable to do—he made EC comics a success.
Gaines’ conversion from comics novice to comics’ greatest fan was swift. Finally convinced to sample his comics, Gaines became an advocate of the medium virtually overnight, convinced that more could be achieved than the rather tepid fare previously offered by his father’s company. Dry pedagogical works were replaced with comics devoted to fun and enjoyment. Under Bill Gaines, Education Comics were recast as Entertainment Comics.
Gaines was unwilling to conform to the image of the publisher embodied by his father and his contemporaries, a profession that Gaines satirised in MAD #5 (July, 1953) as composed of illiterate and uncultured peddlers of smut that were prey to a gamut of repressed perversions. The article did not win him many friends among the industry. In many ways Gaines was simply playing at being a publisher; it was a role he self-consciously assumed with satirical intent. The comic magazine remained one of the few pleasures a person could buy for a dime and for Gaines the ideal comics were produced when the aim was not profit, but fun and entertainment, the product of an endeavour that should always be 95% creative, 5% business. Gaines assembled around him a staff composed of precocious artists and writers including his creative partner Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Graham Ingels, Johnny Craig and Wallace Wood. With the avuncular yet rebellious Gaines at its heart this group would become, innocently, yet earnestly, the bad boys of 1950s comics publishing.
EC comics flourished at a time when most publishers focussed exclusively upon exploiting the most popular genre, whether this be crime, cowboy, romance or hero comics. It was standard practice to flood the market with cheap imitations to maximise sales before the readership moved on to pastures new. Indeed this was the model that Gaines followed in his early years at the helm of EC; the comedic Happy Houlihans became Saddle Justice (1948) which was soon transformed into Saddle Romances (1949).
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gaines took immense pride in what he was publishing, and as the months passed he became motivated by a desire to break new ground rather than simply follow fickle trends. In what would become known as the ‘New Wave’, EC began in early 1950 to focus upon producing a small handful of titles where both the writing and art were of high quality. The heart of the ‘New Wave’ line was a trio of experimental horror comics: The Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear. Gaines, and particularly Al Feldstein, were both inspired by the eerie radio dramas of Arch Oboler, and the horror radio series Witches Tale (1931-8) and Inner Sanctum Mysteries (1941-1952). Witches Tale in particular, hosted by the recurring character of ‘Old Nancy’, anticipated the format of the EC horror comics with their trio of “ghouLunatic” hosts: the Old Witch, the Crypt Keeper and the Vault Keeper.
Fuelled by the drug Dexedrine, a form of speed prescribed for weight loss, Gaines devoted the resulting sleepless nights to searching for basic ideas— ‘springboards’— that could be developed by himself and Feldstein into short illustrated stories. Many of these were straightforward steals from Lord Dunsany, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, reformatted and adapted to fit Gaines’ needs. The quintessential EC story takes the form of a ‘suspenstory’, a term coined by Gaines to describe the twinning of a thrilling high concept with a twist ending. This form originated in EC crime comics but soon came the standard format for all stories. Though Gaines’ horror stories were thronged with various shambling corpses, cackling witches and menacing blobs, all tales were written with tongue firmly in cheek. Throughout all the death there remained an infectious vitality. For Gaines and his staff the comics were a conspiracy, a secret and personal communication between the writer and the reader, a meeting of like minds.
An anarchic thread of dark comedy runs throughout the comics. This manifests most obviously in an anti-authoritarian impulse. All of the adults we encounter are adulterers or murderers, crooks or perverts. Figures in power lack any authority; the stories are full of incompetent policemen and maniacal doctors. We are encouraged by the three narrators to laugh at their foibles and petty schemes. Suspicion of the old by the young is prudent: these are not figures that we can ever trust or take seriously. Their theatrical greed and excesses are always punished. Hunters become the hunted, swindlers are swindled in typical contes cruels fashion. EC karma has a dark and nihilistic sense of humour; justice is never delivered by a divine agent, but by an impersonal universe.
In contrast to EC, publishers such as National and All-American typically considered their readership to be composed of young children and mentally-deficient adults; they produced disposable fodder for the kindergarten and the asylum and could see no impetus to increase the complexity or the sophistication of the medium. EC comics was the first company to recognise its readers as intellectual equals and to validate their consumption of comics as an artistically legitimate pursuit. Bill Gaines, the biggest fan of them all, was the impetus behind this movement and in 1953 founded the EC Fan-Addicts Club, which at its height boasted approximately 25,000 devoted members. Some of the very first fan publications ever published were devoted to EC and its horror comics, and a flourishing fan culture has remained at the heart of the EC legacy, providing the model for the creator/fan relationship developed by Marvel comics in the 1960s.
Considering the dark and often chaotic themes at work in EC’s horror and crime comics it is not surprising that they became the focus for many anti-comics protest groups of the 1950s. EC comics in particular would fall victim to the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, comics’ equivalent of the McCarthy trials of the 1940s and 1950s, which convened in April 1954. The expert testimony of the subcommittee was given by Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a book which touted the comicbook as a trigger for social and sexual deviancy. Wertham believed that comics were not an art form and that legislation was needed to prevent their sale to impressionable minors. Few writers or publishers wished to legitimise the witch-hunting of Senators such as Tennessee Democrat Estes Kefauver by appearing at the subcommittee. Wishing to defend his beloved medium and the quality comics he produced, Gaines voluntarily offered a rebuttal to Wertham, staking his claim as the first and foremost publisher of horror comics in America. This was to prove a costly mistake—Gaines’ testimony would simply serve to put a recognisable face upon the figure of the irresponsible and exploitative publisher committed to corrupting the youth of America. Admitting that the limits to what he published were decided not just by saleability but his own ‘good taste’, Gaines was asked whether severed heads and strangled women, images that often graced the covers of his crime and horror titles, constituted this ‘good taste’ . A sheepish Gaines replied that yes, they were in good taste, ‘good taste for horror comics’ at least.
As a result of the hearings, wholesalers refused to handle the potentially seditious EC comics, and this, combined with the establishment of the Comics Code Authority (a self-regulatory body set up to censor comics), meant that the New Wave comics could not be sold; if by luck or after bowdlerisation they were allowed to ship, many sellers would refuse to handle the product. Thus the New Wave made way for the “New Direction”, a ‘clean, clean line’ shorn of any reference to terror, horror or crime, that aimed to resurrect EC’s fortunes. This was not to be. Titles like Psychoanalysis and MD did not have the visceral thrill of the comics they replaced and each new title folded after the fifth issue. Ultimately all but the satirical MAD would perish in the new and hostile market, and Gaines would focus all of his creative energies upon this last remnant of the New Wave.
After the demise of EC horror, comics with words like ‘Creepy’, ‘Eerie’ and ‘Weird’ in the title proliferated for a time before fading away. Horror would return intermittently after that from DC’S House of Mystery to Marvel’s horror comics of the 1970s, and though they owed a great deal to EC’s trailblazing trio of horror titles, they would never achieve the same level of innovation or controversy. Bill Gaines would never return to writing comics. His ordeal with the subcommittee had tainted the endeavour. In the words of Gaines’ creative partner, Al Feldstein, ‘He feels that what he did was entertainment. He was not turning anybody into a juvenile delinquent. He was crucified upon a cross of comics.’ Gaines died in 1992, proud of the impact his work had on a generation of readers and comic creators and vindicated in his belief that in creating comics he was creating art.
ROBERT R. McCAMMON
by Neil McRobert
The 1980’s were a boom-time for horror fiction. Led by Stephen King, and backed by unprecedented publishing capital, a new generation of writers saturated the market. In the last decade the genre has contracted once again and only a handful of the big names have retained their best-seller status. For every Anne Rice and Dean Koontz there are dozens who have been largely forgotten. Robert McCammon, unjustly, is among the latter.
McCammon’s current anonymity is puzzling. He has won five Bram Stoker Awards, one World Fantasy Award and over a dozen other prizes. In the latter half of his career his novels regularly placed on the New York Times bestsellers list. Yet mention his name today and you will likely draw a blank. The reason for this may be due largely to his decade-long, self-imposed exile from writing after the publication of Gone South in 1992. Horror fans can be a proprietary breed and insistent in their demand for new material. His choice to retire may have alienated readers who, considering him to be writing at the peak of his abilities, felt he owed them more. Indeed, his development as a writer up until the hiatus makes his decision frustrating. But more of that shortly; first the beginning.
Robert Rick McCammon was born in Birmingham, Alabama on 17th July 1952. Raised in the South by his grandparents, he then attended the University of Alabama in 1974. He still lives in the area with his wife and child. Despite his lifelong links to the area commentators have remarked that his early work contains scant acknowledgement of his southern heritage. This is true; only later does his attention turn toward home. By contrast, his first novel, Baal (1978) is a jet-setting narrative of good versus paradigmatic evil. McCammon himself commented that “you always hear this said to young writers, write about what you know. I wanted to write about things I didn’t know, so I consciously set Baal in locations as far from the South as possible.”
It was McCammon’s first attempt at a novel after several failed attempts to publish short fiction. Critics have suggested that the relative ease with which it was published was significant to McCammon’s later career, leaving him unused to rejection. It is an ambitious attempt at a first novel, if clearly indebted to its predecessors. The rape of the heroine and the ensuing birth of a demon-child shares the central conceit of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967). Also, the international pursuit of a supernatural antagonist is reminiscent of the Crew of Light’s trailing of Dracula. That said, the novel was a solid contribution to the genre, and like Carrie (1974) benefits from the urgency and naivety with which it was written. McCammon himself said: “I think that in Baal you can feel the friction of shoulders being squeezed by iron walls: my shoulders, pressing against the walls of a dead-end job.” Whilst Baal (1978) and the ensuing Bethany’s Sin (1980) and The Night Boat (1980) garnered some good reviews, they are unrepresentative of McCammon’s oeuvre. Each of them owes a great debt to other, more successful works, such as King’s early novels and, more specifically, Levin’s novel and Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home. Consequently, it is difficult to distinguish any concerted authorial voice within them.
It is with They Thirst (1981) that McCammon began to distinguish himself. Ironically it is in that most overcooked horror theme – the vampire – that McCammon found his own originality. Obvious comparisons have to be made to King’s Salem’s Lot but in actuality the two novels are very different. Both are overt updates of the vampire tale but King’s small-town setting is trumped by McCammon’s ingenious relocation to the glitz and grime of Los Angeles. The City of Angels is the perfect setting for a modern day vampire myth. As the novel itself points out, the Los Angeles of the 1980’s was such an outré place that anything could go unnoticed until it was too late. The novel, which depicts the efforts of several characters to foil a vampiric plot to take over LA (and then the world) revels in the cynicism and apathy of the city’s inhabitants. McCammon himself has confessed that he finds LA a terrifying place. His opinion is clearly conveyed by the novel’s depictions of the seedier side of the city.
It is at this point that McCammon turns his attention to home. His next novel is Mystery Walk (1983), a picaresque tale of a young boy with psychic powers set in Alabama.. Again there are references to other authors, but here they are intentional rather than derivative. The small town setting and the carnival motif is resonant of Ray Bradbury. McCammon often emphasised his love of Bradbury by including it as formative reading for his young protagonists. The towns of Hawthorne in Mystery Walk and Zephyr in Boy’s Life (1991) are a homage to Bradbury’s Green Town. Unlike Bradbury’s southern idyll, however, McCammon’s South is depicted ambivalently. The boyhood romanticisation is present but underpinned by an adult awareness of social tensions: racial, sexual and economic. The Klan is foregrounded in Mystery Walk, as is the general prejudice and racial intolerance often inherent in small communities. McCammon refuses to resort to a simple polarisation of good and evil, however. The father of the hero, himself a sympathetic character, is affiliated with the Klan. Later he is offered redemption but his initial collusion illustrates McCammon’s refusal to depict his own boyhood community as a flawless haven. He thus presents a more absorbing South than writers who opt only for romance or criticism.
Mystery Walk is not without flaws. Its structure is odd in places and the twist is overly contrived. Despite this it is a very original work, more toned-down than They Thirst, but with a more nuanced awareness of the boundary between horror and pastiche. It includes some wonderful set-pieces. One, a conflict with a snake-wielding maniac and a haunted fairground ride, could be the basis for a novel itself. There are also the first impressions of McCammon as a gifted writer. Previously his novels abounded with the purplest of prose and every image screamed from the page. In Mystery Walk McCammon discovers a quieter, more ruminative tone. It seems that by bringing his fiction home to the South he is able to better catch the essence of nature and voice. Then again, his depiction of LA in They Thirst had been highly praised, and that was based purely on one weekend of intense research.
His next four books all appeared within five years. This fecundity is more impressive when you consider that each of them was over 400 pages and one, Swan Song (1987), approaches 1000 pages. Swan Song’s notable length locates it in the 1980’s trend of huge horror ‘epics’. Unlike many of them, however, it doesn’t feel bloated; the story requires a grand canvas. Leaving Swan Song aside for a moment, this is a period that best illustrates McCammon’s playfulness and his recourse to pulp fiction. Usher’s Passing (1984) takes the premise that Poe’s Usher Family did not end with Roderick and Madeleine. Instead, another branch of the Usher’s flourished into a powerful aristocratic family. The novel follows the fortunes of young Rix Usher who, returning home to the family mansion in the Carolina mountains, is forced to delve into the family's past. What develops is a gloriously silly plot involving a prowling panther called Greediguts, Pumpkinhead - the local bogeyman who steals children, and so many overt Gothic trappings that it is clear that McCammon knows his own genre inside out.
If Usher’s Passing is indebted to Poe, then Stinger (1988) is a paean to 1950’s cold war B-movies. A battle between aliens takes place in the Texan town of Inferno. The bounty hunter chasing the renegade alien entraps the town within a force field and, with typical interstellar efficiency, creates replicants of the townsfolk. The only difference is that they have metallic claws and teeth – the Stingers of the title. Seemingly without drawing breath, McCammon leapt onto and even more anarchic idea in The Wolf’s Hour (1989). The hero of this novel is a werewolf employed by the allied powers to infiltrate and undermine the Third Reich. This is one of those novels that sounds too ridiculous to work…yet does. McCammon again made clear his antecedents, referring as much to James Bond as to the werewolf genre. Like They Thirst the novel takes a well-worn horror theme and spins it, and again the tone manages to remain just within the serious.
In between page-turning romps McCammon also published Swan Song. Whilst comparisons with King’s The Stand (1978) are generally cosmetic, both novels do contain a similar premise; a conflict being fought between two groups of people for survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Their epic length also draws comparison; in both cases they are the authors’ longest novels. Despite these overarching similarities McCammon’s vision is very different from King’s. Indeed, Swan Song and They Thirst, when compared to The Stand and Salem’s Lot make redundant the persistent claim that McCammon was a Stephen King rip-off. The apocalypse of Swan Song is nuclear rather than bacterial and the horrors are more overt than in King’s novel. McCammon relates the struggles of a disparate group of characters to protect the Swan of the title – a young girl with the power to heal. Her supernatural ability, and the disciple-like following that she gathers, may sound suggestive of The Stand’s Christian allegory. In actuality McCammon eschews Christian overtones and Swan’s abilities resemble ‘new-age’ holistic methods. Freed from the religious constraints of ultimate good and evil McCammon is able to render his characters more interestingly flawed. They are as boldly drawn as any McCammon had previously created and continue his penchant for the idiosyncratic. Sister Creep, a deranged bag-lady becomes a maternal heroine whilst Josh Hutchins, a huge wrestler with the stage-name of Black Frankenstein, becomes Swan’s protector. In opposition is the psychotic Colonel Macklin and Roland Kroniger, a creepily unctuous teenage psychopath.
Swan Song is doubtlessly among McCammon’s most loved novels. It tied with King’s Misery for the Bram Stoker Award and, along with The Wolf’s Hour, is the novel that most often prompts requests for a sequel. Thus far McCammon has not obliged. Instead, after this middle period he began to move away from straight horror and towards less easily classifiable work. His next, Mine (1990) is a direct contrast to the meanderings of Swan Song. It’s a sleek thriller in which a woman pursues the ex-revolutionary who has abducted her child. Mine has a lot to say about the death of the 1960’s ideology and the transformation of ‘hippies into yuppies.’ Mary Terror is one of McCammon’s most engaging villains. An early episode in which she murders a ‘baby’ is shocking. Her ensuing ‘birth’ is also uncomfortable, more for its revelation of her madness and loneliness than any physical grotesquery. It is McCammon’s first novel to forego supernatural elements. It still went on to win him a second Bram Stoker and cement his name amongst the premier contemporary horror novelists.
The experience of writing so personally marked a distinct, if short lived, change in McCammon’s fiction, away from the full-bodied prose of his previous work towards a sparser, bleaker style. If Boy’s Life is a romanticised vision of McCammon’s own youth and Southern heritage, then Gone South (1992) is its dark twin. It follows Don Lambert, a Vietnam vet on the run for murder. Like much outstanding Southern Gothic his travels into the swamplands of the deep south, accompanied by a horribly disfigured woman, adopt the overtones of fable; a latter day Hansel and Gretel. The first line makes clear that this is a very different south than that of his previous work: “It was Hell’s season, and the air smelled of burning children.” The novel is terse and efficient, as visceral a view of the South as anything by William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy or James Dickey. Gone South presented a more mature McCammon, freed from the constraints of his genre pigeon-holing and with a renewed acceptance of his Southern identity. With three recent Bram Stoker Awards and enviable sales records he seemed to be at the peak of his career. Then he stopped.
The issue that brought about his impromptu retirement was a disagreement with publishers over his next novel Speaks the Nightbird. Again McCammon had tried to change tack, this time delving into the history of the seventeenth century witch trials. McCammon had a disagreement with a publisher about the novel. Nightbird was an already vivid tome; yet, according to McCammon, the editor in question wanted to change the plot to something akin to lurid romantic fiction. As other critics and myself have already suggested, McCammon was unused to rejection. Shocked by the changes in the marketplace he consequentially suffered depression. During his illness he had struggled to complete another novel, The Village, about a First World War theatrical troupe. Neither fits within the horror genre and publishers thought that the public would be unwelcoming to such a change of direction. McCammon thus found himself entrapped by his genre affiliation in much the same way as Stephen King did during the same period. Unfortunately for the reader, McCammon’s time off from publishing and deadlines had renewed his interest in being a family man. He therefore withdrew from professional writing in 1993.
A decade passed. Then in 2002 McCammon was overheard reading parts of Nightbird to students by a representative from River Press. They approached him with the offer of publishing the novel his way. It was an opportunity he took. Since then he has published a sequel to Nightbird, The Queen Of Bedlam (2007) and there is a third in the series forthcoming. In his own words McCammon is “absolutely unretired.” Whilst this is excellent news for fans, for those with a particularly Gothic or horror bent, the Matthew Corbett series (as the recent historical novels are known) are of secondary importance to the work preceding his hiatus. That body of work, comprising 12 novels and a short story collection, is compact enough to be unimposing, yet comprehensive enough to give a perspective on his development as a writer.. McCammon’s output allows the reader to chart the growth of a horror writer who was unafraid to strain at the rules and avoided the entrapment of genre convention. He was writing for almost the entirety of the period in which horror was big business in the publishing world. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries he avoided pomposity. His work is a contemporary window back into the effective simplicity of early twentieth century horror. It is certainly low-brow, even trashy, in parts, but gloriously so. Importantly, what it possesses is a vitality and clarity of intention lost in some of the more grandiose horror of the 1980’s. McCammon deserves to be remembered as an original voice from an era when repetition and overindulgence threatened to reduce horror to a conformist genre. With the advent of a renewed commercial interest in horror – Twilight being a case in point – maybe McCammon’s return can help protect the genre from another nullifying corporate stranglehold.
However, what really distinguishes They Thirst from the surfeit of vampire fiction is its unashamedly fun nature. While never quite resorting to spoof, it does suggest that McCammon’s tongue is firmly in his cheek. The Vampire King, Count Vulkan, is situated in the Hollywood tradition of B-movie villains, as is his sidekick, a Hells-Angel Vampire with the exquisite moniker of Kobra. There is a serial killer servant named Benefield, in an obvious tip of the hat to Dracula’s Renfield. Most self-referential is the vampire’s choice of base, a neo-gothic castle relocated from Romania by a horror film mogul. McCammon’s take on the vampire is as (dis)respectful to the horror-films of the 1950’s and 60’s and the pulp magazines as it is to the classics of the genre.
They Thirst is a horror novel foremost but it’s also determined to flirt with the boundaries of parody. It is this willingness to inject his novels with an element of self-awareness that distinguishes McCammon from his peers. Whereas King and Anne Rice were developing increasingly grandiose mythologies, McCammon harked back to the pulp magazines that had kept the genre alive for so long. His success lay in his ability to do so without reducing his novels to absurdity or diluting their effectiveness as horror.
After a collection of short stories, Blue World (1990) he continued his breakneck pace and released Boy’s Life (1991). The novel won him his third Stoker Award but it’s inclusion within the contest owes more to McCammon’s categorisation as a horror writer than any intrinsic horror within the novel itself. Boy's Life is first and foremost an elegy to childhood. The allusions to Bradbury are made overt; references to his stories litter the page and the novel is similar in both tone and form to Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (1957). The episodic plot involves no less than a lake monster, escaped war criminals, a haunted road, a witch, a wild-west gunfight, race problems, a resurrected dog and a dinosaur running amok through town. It is essentially unclassifiable as a novel, in turns picaresque, bildungsroman, boys-own adventure and magic realism. Like Dandelion Wine an essence of autobiography suffuses the novel. McCammon denies that he is Cory, the young hero, but has acknowledged autobiographical elements:
“Boy's Life is what I would call a "fictography," a combination of fiction and biography. It is, in one sense, about me and why I became a writer; in another sense, I believe it is a universal story of a boy's awakening to dark forces in the world around him.”
by Brendan O’Connell
Though the literature of the Middle Ages often betrays a strong fascination with the macabre, ghostly and grotesque, these impulses are typically subordinated to an ethical or didactic impulse that makes it difficult (if not impossible) to classify such works as Gothic and Horror fiction. Yet, as Peter Dendle demonstrates in an earlier Lost Souls contribution, the example of Gregory of Tours shows how adroitly medieval writers could manipulate gothic and horror elements to elicit a particular emotional (and often ethical) response. Indeed, the emotion of fear plays an important and often underappreciated role in medieval moralistic fiction. Insistence on the terrible consequences of sin has always been a staple part of the didactic mode, but it is worth noting that the most influential medieval version of Aristotle’s Poetics (in the form of a popular commentary by Averroes) redefined and extended the notion of catharsis to argue that the audience’s pity and fear should be heightened, not purged, by engagement with literary works. Moreover, devotional and hagiographical works often feature distressing and uncanny violations of the natural order, though the aim is ultimately to increase the audience’s devotion to God or to a particular saint.
In light of this, I would like to draw attention to a neglected medieval poet, and his brilliant contribution to the cult of a largely forgotten saint. The anonymous author of Saint Erkenwald* was a master of medieval alliterative verse, rivalled only by the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (with whom, indeed, he has sometimes been identified). Though written in a Cheshire dialect of the late-fourteenth century, the action of the poem centres on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and on a specific miracle (one apparently invented by the poet) of the cathedral’s most important saints. Saint Erkenwald was a seventh-century Saxon bishop of London, whose shrine at Old St. Paul’s (completely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666) was the centre of an important cult throughout the Middle Ages.
Shrine of St. Erkenwald at Old St. Paul’s, destroyed 1666
Erkenwald’s late-fourteenth century successor, Robert Braybrook, was keen to encourage devotion to the saint, and the writing of Saint Erkenwald has often been associated with Braybrook’s 1386 dictate that the saint’s feast day be rigorously observed. Though the ornate shrine in Old St. Paul’s suggests that Erkenwald’s cult was never completely eclipsed, supporters of the cult may have felt they were fighting an uphill battle to keep the saint in the public’s hearts and minds. Indeed, the Latin Vita and Miraculae of the saint recount an exceptional number of violent and vengeful miracles in which those who refuse to pay due homage to Erkenwald are brutally punished. In one vivid scene from the Miraculae, a disrespectful artisan not only labours on the saint’s feast day, but mocks the priesthood; as he strides across the churchyard he trips on a half-buried skull and brains himself on a tombstone. In another legend, the saint himself rises from his tomb and inflicts a merciless beating (with his bishop’s staff, no less) on a man who failed to observe his feast day. It seems likely that the author of Saint Erkenwald sought to capitalise on this association with the macabre, while offering a more humane representation of the titular saint.
Saint Erkenwald opens with an imaginatively compelling summary of the history of the English church and people: the pagan Saxons drive out the Christian Britons, only to be converted in turn by Saint Augustine, who hurls the idols from the temples and converts them to churches (the temples of Jupiter and Juno being rededicated to Jesus and James; those of Mohammed to Margaret or Mary Magdalene). The greatest temple of all belongs to a mighty devil, but it falls to a later bishop, Erkenwald, to demolish this temple and rebuild it as St Paul’s. While the workmen dig to secure the foundations, they discover a marvellous tomb, obviously of great age, but described in strikingly contemporary gothic terms, and decorated with gargoyles of grey marble (48). There are bright gold characters carved around the edges, but the letters are ‘roynyshe’ (52), mysterious, or perhaps even runic, and no one can translate them. The marvellous discovery causes quite a stir, and poem brilliantly captures the hordes of people converging on the cathedral, leading the mayor and sexton to seal off the site of this ‘toumbe wonder’ (57).
The mystery only deepens, however, when the mayor orders the workmen to lift the enormous lid from the sarcophagus, and they discover an ancient, but perfectly preserved corpse, magnificently attired and bearing the symbols of kingship (crown and sceptre). To a medieval audience, the marvellously preserved body would have immediately suggested the discovery of the sanctified remains of a holy man, such as the incorruptible St. Cuthbert.
From the Life of Saint Cuthbert, © The British Library Board. Add. 39943, f.77
The impression of saintliness may even have been strengthened by the body’s regal attributes, as some of England’s most famous incorrupt saints had also been kings (Edward the Confessor) or princesses (Etheldreda). The poet describes the perfectly preserved corpse in striking detail:
And als freshe hym the face and the fleshe nakyde
Bi his eres and by his hondes that openly shewid
Wyt ronke rode, as the rose, and two rede lippes
As he in sounde sodanly were slippide opon slepe. (89-92)
[And fresh were the face and the naked flesh, by his ears and his hands, which were openly exposed with vivid red, like the rose, and two red lips, as though he had suddenly slipped into a sound sleep.]
Thus described, the body occupies a disconcerting space between life and death: though buried for centuries, it seems to be merely sleeping. The description of the flesh as ‘ronke rode’ (which I would translate as ‘vivid red’) is powerfully suggestive, since ‘ronke’ might also signify ‘proud’, ‘ripe’ or even ‘loathsome’ (later, indeed, we are reminded that the incorrupt corpse has been spared from the ‘ronke wormes’, 62). The body’s flushed appearance is deliberately disconcerting. The poet has borrowed from romance descriptions of youthful beauty in painting the corpse’s soft skin and red lips: this transference of the language of erotic description to the centuries-old cadaver unsettles the reader by blurring the boundaries between the living and the dead, and neatly encapsulates the ambiguous response elicited by the marvellous body, poised between powerful attraction and visceral repulsion. The description of the body as flush with blood might evoke, for a modern reader, an almost vampiric quality; for a medieval audience, however, it would have suggested a different set of associations, centred on the incorruption of the sanctified body. Indeed, the body’s flushed appearance serves a practical function, as the visible presence of blood is tangible evidence that the corpse’s incorruption is the product of divine grace, and not due to embalming, as even the bishop himself wrongly suspects (261).
When an extensive search through chronicles and necrologies yields no clues as the identity of the corpse, the people turn to Erkenwald for a spiritual answer to the mystery. The bishop prays for divine guidance, and is directed to undertake the simplest but most extraordinary course of action: he turns to the corpse and asks it to reveal its secrets. On being addressed in the name of Christ, the corpse stirs:
The bryght body in the burynes brayed a litelle
And wyt a drery dreme he dryves owte wordes,
Thurghe sum Goste lant lyfe of hym that al redes. (190-2)
[The bright body in the tomb stirred a little, and with a mournful voice he forces out words, through some Spirit-lent life from him who rules all.]
The corpse explains that he was not a king, but a pagan judge renowned for his perfect and fair judgements. When he died, the people declared him a ‘king of justices’, and buried him in regal splendour. But it was God, who loves righteousness, who kept his body incorrupt. At this point, the medieval reader may suspect that the pagan judge is one of a specially privileged group of pre-Christians who were miraculously granted foreknowledge of Christ’s impending sacrifice, and were consequently saved through faith (like, for example, the Trojan Ripheus, whom Dante places in his Paradiso). But when Erkenwald asks the corpse if his soul is in heaven, as he suspects it surely is, the judge groans and reveals that he is in fact a lost soul, who has been damned to that ‘dark death’ in which no day ever dawns. The bishop is shocked and deeply moved: he sobs and weeps, wishing the corpse could regain life just long enough for him to fetch water and baptise him in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. As he utters the words of the baptismal formula, a tear falls on the body, and the judge lets out a sigh: the bishop’s words and tears have baptised him, causing a light to flash out in the darkness of hell and his soul to spring to heaven, where she is nobly welcomed to the heavenly banquet.
Pope Gregory releasing Trajan
from hell, detail from Michael Pacher,
Altarpiece of the Church Fathers
(c. 1483), Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
The sudden decomposition of the corpse is startling and unexpected, but finally inevitable. The scene perfectly encapsulates the Erkenwald-poet’s exploitation of gothic and horror elements: the decomposition of the corpse is a vividly physical manifestation of supernatural power, but the reader’s shock is ultimately revealed to be no more than man’s uncomfortable confrontation with the inevitability of death and decay, a confrontation implicit throughout this poem, whose action centres, after all, on a conversation between the living and the dead. The shock of this confrontation, indeed, may be less than perfectly subsumed into the poet’s devout insistence on the transcendent bliss of everlasting life. At the poem’s close, as the bells of the city ring out and the Londoners return to their everyday lives, their songs of praise are tinged with grief, as ‘mournynge and myrthe’ are mingled together.
* 'Saint Erkenwald', ed. by Clifford Peterson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977).
In this way, the poet masterfully reworks a well-known legend, in which Pope Gregory prayed for, and obtained, the salvation of the pagan emperor Trajan.
Numerous versions of this legend circulated in the Middle Ages, including famous accounts by Dante and Langland, but no account of the salvation of the righteous heathen is as brilliantly conceived as Saint Erkenwald. Strikingly, though the version by Jacopo della Lana says that Trajan’s tongue was perfectly preserved in his skull and was even able to speak, Saint Erkenwald is unique in emphasising the perfect, saint-like incorruption of the physical remains of the righteous pagan. Here, however, the body which exerts such fascination on those who view it is also a source of fear and discomfort, almost revulsion. Once the judge is saved, the corpse, and the pagan past it represents, must be banished from the text in order to make way for the final triumph of the Christian faith represented by the construction of the cathedral of St. Paul on the site of the pagan temple:
Bot sodenly his swete chere swyndid and faylide
And alle the blee of his body wos blakke as the moldes,
As roten as the rottok that rises in powdere.
For as sone as the soule was sesyd in blisse
Corrupt was that othir crafte that couert the bones,
For the ay-lastande life that lethe shalle never
Devoydes vche a vayne-glorie that vayles so litelle. (342-8)
[But suddenly his pleasing face vanished and wasted away, and all the colour of his body became black as the soil, as rotten as the musty decay that rises like powder. For as soon as the soul was taken into bliss, the other craft that covered the bones was corrupt, because the everlasting life, which will never cease, expels all vainglory, which avails so little.]
Peter Van Greenaway
by Edward O'Hare
If Peter Van Greenaway tried to ensure that the details of his life stayed out of the public domain then he certainly succeeded. Even though he only died twenty years ago, hard facts about this writer are impossible to come by. It’s almost as if he came into being along with the first of his books and ceased to exist when they stopped appearing. And yet, for over thirty years Van Greenaway was among the most prolific of popular novelists. He was also one of the most unusual, intelligent, and highly-skilled British horror writers of the 20th century who, when at the full stretch of his abilities, produced a genuine genre masterpiece, The Medusa Touch.
The Medusa Touch (1973)
Instead he turned to the novel and became established as a reliable if not necessarily conventional popular writer. In 1972 he was contracted by the publishing house Gollancz, famous for its genre fiction, and turned out a book roughly every other year until his death in 1988. His work is extremely varied, taking in supernatural mysteries, detective stories, historical novels and science-fiction and conspiracy thrillers. They are also very interesting genre combinations, often defying any strict classification. However, it’s Van Greenaway’s talent for the macabre that most readily distinguishes his work. Nowhere was this trait more in evidence than in his finest novel, and the only one to enjoy any following today, The Medusa Touch.
Judas! (1972, aka The Judas Gospel)
It begins with a murder. Reclusive novelist John Morlar has been found in his London flat, his head smashed in. Inspector Francis Cherry of Scotland Yard is baffled why anyone would wish to murder a man who wanted nothing to do with the world. However, just as the mortuary wagon arrives it emerges that Morlar is still alive. Despite having literally had his brains beaten out, the writer clings to life by the merest thread and is rushed to hospital and put on a life-support machine.
With no leads, Cherry delves into Morlar’s journals. In these he encounters a man fixated with human evil who believes himself to be conducting a lonely crusade against corruption, hypocrisy and tyranny. Cherry’s inquiries lead him to Morlar’s psychiatrist, Dr. Zonfeld. Zonfeld explains that Morlar suffered from the delusion that he was responsible for a series of terrible incidents dating back to his childhood, that he had a ‘gift for disaster’ that had already claimed many lives. The more Cherry learns about Morlar the more astounding the chain of deaths becomes. It seems that Morlar’s nanny, parents, schoolmaster, the judge who ruined his legal career, his unfaithful wife, her lover and many others all perished in tragic circumstances after he looked them directly in the eye.
Morlar lately believed that his powers had increased, allowing him to bring about a series of earth-shattering atrocities, including sinking a submarine, crashing a jumbo jet into a London skyscraper and sending an American lunar module hurtling out of its orbit. The abnormal resilience with which Morlar is keeping himself this side of the grave suggests that he has some unfinished business. Doubting even his own sanity, Cherry begins to wonder if Morlar could really be what he claimed, ‘The Man With the Power to Create Catastrophe.’
The joys of The Medusa Touch are many. Prime among these is Van Greenaway’s superb prose style. Playful, allusive, full of dark jokes and wordplay, this is a popular writer with the courage to assume that his reader has a brain. He prefaces the novel with a quotation from Pythagoras, ‘That Which it is Possible to Think is That Which it is Possible to Be’ and a maxim of his own devising ‘Reality is the Hard Core of Myth’ and fills it with enough paradoxes and philosophical conundrums for a dozen books. For a piece of genre fiction the book is also surprisingly experimental. Van Greenway leaves sentences tantalizingly unfinished. He addresses questions directly to the reader. Cryptic statements emerge from the shadows to perplex. The overall effect is deeply unsettling.
John Morlar, ‘the disaster man,’ is a superb creation and, like many of the great monsters, he is also a sympathetic anti-hero. Gleefully vengeful and megalomaniacal one moment, full of torment and melancholy the next, his denunciations of the evil soul and brutal nature of humanity are sonnets of despair. Morlar’s loathing for mankind is matched by an overwhelming self-hatred, since his telekinetic powers can only be used to destroy. The extracts from his journals are masterful examples of modern gothic writing: “There is more sky than earth. More sea than land. More tears than smiles. One day the unbearable grief of mankind shall flow forth and an ark shall float on that liquid expression of misery.”
The Medusa Touch’s treatment of the supernatural is also very advanced. As it progresses, Van Greenaway compels us to think more and more about the relationships between mind and matter, thought and action, good and evil. Consequently we come to realise how little we understand ourselves and Morlar’s terrible ‘gift’ seems less and less incredible. The novel’s central debate about rational belief is encapsulated in the blazing exchanges between Morlar, a character who clearly contains more than a little of his creator, and Dr. Zonfeld, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud. These two intellectual equals are separated only by one factor: one believes in the paranormal, the other does not. This leads to a deadly battle of wills, with the two men holding on to their theories of reality for dear life.
If H.G. Wells used his Martian invaders to annihilate what he detested about society then Van Greenaway uses Morlar for a similar purpose. He channels his ‘gift’ at all those who displease him, which amounts to just about everybody. The novel is a succession of barbed and witty attacks on various groups and institutions, including politicians, scientists, the intelligentsia, the legal system, the military, the church, the media, the psychiatric profession, actors and the middle classes. The Medusa Touch reaches its stunning zenith when Morlar unleashes the full force of his telekinetic powers to bring down the roof of Westminster Abbey upon a collection of the glitterati, including the Royal family, who have assembled there for a ceremony. And then, when all seems safe, there is a final Van Greenaway twist that leaves a very nauseous taste in the mouth.
The Medusa Touch (Dir. Jack Gold, 1978)
It’s no surprise that The Medusa Touch was quickly turned into a film but what is surprising is that the result is as good. Lew Grade, cleverly making the most of the late 70’s fad for doomsday thrillers, brought together a fine cast, including Richard Burton, Lino Ventura, Lee Remmick, Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson, Philip Stone, Michael Hordern and Jeremy Brett and gave them a script worthy of their talents. No actor before or since was as perfectly suited to the role of Morlar as Burton. His performance is remarkably sombre and all the more eerie for it. A sudden glare, a slight sneer, a thunderous rumble in that richest of voices is enough to suggest the vast destructive powers at his command.
Despite continuing to write for another fifteen years, Van Greenaway never again managed to bring together the magic combination of elements in quite the same way he did in The Medusa Touch. He produced some highly efficient work, and based five further novels around Inspector Cherry, but despite an ample amount of thrills, chills and interesting notions they are mundane in comparison with this character’s first outing. Some, such as 1975’s Doppelganger (involving a plague of doubles in the corridors of power) and The Destiny Man (1977) (about an actor who becomes possessed by a previously unknown Shakespeare play), have their moments but lack the intellectual rigour and simmering tension that marked Van Greenaway’s magnum opus.
Van Greenaway came to the short story quite late, producing his first collection, Edgar Allan Who?, in 1981 as a homage to the great American master who was a definite source of inspiration for him (and whose tales he adapted for television in the mid 60’s) and his second, The Immortal Coil, in 1985. By the early 1980’s Van Greenaway’s writing had become even more pessimistic in tone. In his final works he centred his attacks on the scientific community but his creativeness was clearly waning. Manrissa Man (1982), a Frankenstein simulacrum, concerned the development of a race of apemen with the mental faculties of humans who decide to take over the world. By the time Van Greenaway wrote Mutants (1986), a tale of razor-toothed ultra-intelligent mice, his imagination was obviously exhausted.
If we can reach any conclusions about Van Greenaway it’s that he was a man extremely ill at ease in modernity. To read one of his books is to step inside an brilliant but haunted mind that had colossal contempt for all kinds of authority, technology and mass culture. Van Greenaway was probably capable of more, but he stuck with popular fiction because as well as paying the bills it allowed him to pour scorn upon his favourite victims.
The critic Christopher Fowler is correct when he writes that Van Greenaway “at his best wrote popular fiction with a rare passion and erudition” and that his “peculiar talents were suited to the period in which he wrote, but transcended them.”As much as his books are about the supernatural, they are equally about the madness generated in men by the systematized madness of civilization. The symbols he chose for humanity’s destructiveness over three decades ago, car wrecks, exploding power stations, planes being flown into tower blocks and nuclear attacks, are now charged with a prophetic resonance. He was a writer with a truly apocalyptic imagination that has lost none of its persuasive force.
What do we know for sure? According to the brief biography his book’s carry Peter Van Greenaway was born in London in 1929. As no person of that name was ever listed in a London census (even though this was always given as his home city), it’s fairly safe to assume that it was an alias. The surname has that tinge of exoticism common to the nom de plume’s of many authors of that time. Van Greenaway never gave interviews or publicised his work, no photographs of him exist and, apart from reviews of his novels, the only occasions his name appeared in newspapers was when his engagement was announced in 1949 and when he attended a memorial service in 1951.
Van Greenaway’s books also state that he practiced law before turning to fiction, something the numerous convincing descriptions of legal procedure in his novels would confirm. Before very long he seems to have given this up and tried his hand at a number of different vocations. In 1955 he wrote a play for radio. He appeared in a 1957 episode of the World War II prison camp drama series Escape. Van Greenaway’s ambition to be an actor does not seem to have persisted and by the late 50’s he had moved the other side of the camera, writing scripts for such ‘play of the week’ shows as ITV Playhouse, Thirty-Minute Theatre and Saturday Night Thriller. The small and intermittent nature of his contributions gives the impression that this line of work was not his forte either.
Looking back at his earliest work, it’s astonishing that Van Greenway ever had a successful writing career. His first book, The Crucified City (1962), is a cheerful piece about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on London. The plot follows a group of survivors, all dying of radiation sickness, as they make a final pilgrimage. The book is typical Van Greenaway, neither straightforward commercial sci-fi nor a ‘Ban the Bomb’ parable, but a mixture of allegory, horror and satire which set the trend for what followed. It also had something that would become a standard feature of Van Greenaway’s novels: a final surprise that completely inverts much of what you have read. In The Crucified City, the only character to reach the last page alive is a deaf mute who is revealed to be the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Van Greenaway had two further stabs at writing a bestseller before hitting the jackpot with his fourth novel, Judas!(1972), which won him much acclaim and a wide readership. Hardly a year passed and Van Greenaway was back with the best book he would ever write. The Medusa Touch (1973) is a devilishly sophisticated horror story, a disturbing, blackly comic and truly gripping genre classic that still reads well even after thirty years.
by Maria Parsons
Infamous in the annals of the history of the ‘vamp’ and the changing nature of the vampire is the actress Theda Bara, who came to fame in Frank Powell’s silent film A Fool There Was in 1915. A graduate of the Biograph motion picture company, Powell had recently completed The Stain (1914) for Pathé, written by Forrest Halsey. It was while working on The Stain he came into contact with the relatively unknown actress Theodosia Goodman, who had some previous stage experience under the name of De Coppett. Having impressed Powell with her audition she was given a minor role in the film, classified as an extra. A year later, Powell was chosen to direct the film A Fool There Was with the line up for the casting of the central female role including leading actresses of the silent movie era such as Valerie Surrat, Madeline Traverse and Virginia Pearson. However, Powell, trusting his instincts, decided upon the unknown Goodman and so began her rise to stardom. It was also Powell who was responsible for her screen name Theda Bara, with Theda an obvious contraction of Theodosia, and Bara taken from a relative’s name of Barranger.
Lobby card for A Fool There Was (1915)
The release of A Fool There Was in January 1915 was an immediate box office hit, with both audiences and critics alike, catapulting an unknown Theda Bara to stardom, with a cast that included Mabel Frenyear, Victor Benoit, May Allison, Clifford Bruce and the child actress Run Hodges. Bara’s performance was lauded by critics who claimed it was her ‘sterling acting of the role of Satan’s ally that started the vampire craze in motion pictures.’(The Chicago Defender, 20 July 1918) Another review commented that ‘Miss Bara’s interpretation is remarkable for intense dramatic realism, while her wonderfully seductive beauty serves to enhance the illusion created by her art.’ (The Atlanta Constitution, 7 Nov. 1915) Or, as an article in The Chicago Tribune in October 1945 noted, ‘Theda, when she played the character for the movies, became so popular that she made the verb ‘to vamp’ a much used American slang term. But the old Fox company made Theda vamp in all her films thereafter, and in each one she literally ruined dozens of men.’ Thus, followed successive roles in films such as, The Devil’s Daughter, Sin, Carmen (1915), Her Double Life, The Vixen (1916), The Tiger Woman, Cleopatra, Her Greatest Love, Heart and Soul, Camille, The Rose of Blood (1917), Salome, The Soul of Buddha, When a Woman Sins, The She-Devil (1918), The Siren’s Song, The Light, A Woman There Was, La belle Ruse, Kathleen Mavourneen and The Lure of Ambition (1919).
Theda Bara as Carmen (1915)
Powell’s film was an adaptation of the previously successful stage production of the same name, written and directed by the playwright and novelist Porter Emerson Browne. Browne’s stage production in 1909 owed much to the art and literature of the previous decades. Early influences ranged from paintings such as Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) to Arthur Symon’s poem ‘The Vampire’ (1896). In Symons’ short poem woman is described as an ‘intolerable’ creature of the night, who ‘Would fain pity, but she may not rest / Till she have sucked a man’s heart from his breast / And drained his life-blood from him, vein, by vein.' However, the work which had the most influence on Browne’s play was Philip Burne-Jones’ painting The Vampire (1897) (the lobby card for the film, pictured above, clearly owes a debt to that painting). The painting included a set of verses written specifically for it, by the artist's cousin Rudyard Kipling, also entitled ‘The Vampire’. (The model for Philip Burne-Jones’ painting was the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell). Kipling’s poem opened with the line which was to become the title of Browne’s play ‘A fool there was’. In Kipling’s poem the woman is a gold-digging, merciless harlot, who ‘To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair / (we called her the woman who didn’t care) / But the fool he called her his lady fair.’ The poem concludes with the fool ‘stripped to his foolish hide’. It was the success of the stage production of A Fool There Was which led first to its novelization and then its adaptation for the screen. Across its manifestations, from the stage to the screen, the success of Browne’s work reflected the cultural climate in these opening decades of the twentieth-century, which were marked by an insatiable public appetite for popular representations of financially ruinous women. The film visualised a middle-class, married man’s hapless infatuation with the ‘Vampire’ and his eventual downfall at the hands of her ruthless gold-digging and morally degenerate ways. It also contained the infamous predatory kiss which horrified audiences, with Bara’s ‘Vampire’ sibilantly hissing ‘Kiss me my Fool, Kiss me my Fool.’
Bara as Rosa in Sin (1915) Bara and Thurston Hall in Cleopatra (1917)
Such was the success of Bara in the role of the ‘Vampire’ that it wasn’t long before the studios started building on the exoticism of the screen persona that Bara had created. Crucial to the building of the Bara myth were the press agents Johnny Goldfrap and Al Selig. Earlier in his career, Selig had worked alongside the now Fox general manager Winfield Sheehan as a reporter for the New York World. The columns of the press were dominated with the fabulous fabrications of typewriters, claiming that Theda Bara (an anagram for Arab death) was of foreign birth and possessed supernatural powers. She was said to have been born in the Sahara, to a French artist and his concubine. A press release in The Atlanta Constitution in 1915 claimed, ‘Theda Bara, leading woman at the Theater Antoine, Paris, has been cast as the “Vampire”, one of the most fascinating, though revolting female characters ever created.’ Her costumes for the film were also said to be ‘designed by the leading costumers of her native Paris.’ Bara contributed to such myth-making by wearing an Egyptian head piece and allowing herself to be photographed with snakes and skulls. Most of the images of Bara photographed in this style of oriental mysticism were taken at Underwood & Underwood studios. As Terry Ramsaye in A Million and One Nights (1925) notes, ‘This deadly Arab girl was a crystal gazing seeress of profoundly occult powers, wicked as a fresh red paint and poisonous as dried spiders. The stronger the copy grew the more it was printed. Little girls read it and swallowed their gum with excitement.’ He also observes how the ‘motion picture public went to the theatre to see about all this promisingly snaky stuff and found that the effect on the screen was up to the advance notices. Theda Bara of the screen, working her willowy way with me, became the vicarious and shadowy realisation of several million variously suppressed desires.’ But Bara’s actual origins were much less exotic than her studio persona suggested – she was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1885 and contrary to her femme-fatale status was happily married to the director Charles Brabin. Despite these facts having been readily available for many years now, Bara’s silent screen image as a mysterious and exotic seductress remains the pervading one. All of which testifies to the power of the media and, more significantly, the power of the movie screen to invent profoundly potent and enduring myths.
Bara as Cleopatra (1917) Publicity shot of Bara with a raven in her hair (c. 1916)
However, by 1919 Bara’s contract with Fox Studios had expired and her screen career came to a halt – whether this came about because Fox felt her popularity was waning or because Bara, herself, was tired of being typecast is still not entirely clear. Nevertheless, utilizing her success and infamy as the original screen vamp she undertook a successful and lucrative tour of the movie houses of America. As was stated in an article entitled, ‘Look Who’s Here! It’s the Movie Vamp Again’ in The Atlanta Constitution (23 Apr. 1922), ‘Theda’s retirement from the screen for the footlight stage left the film world destitute of a vampire.’ While on tour Bara, feeling the pulse of cinema going audiences, conducted her own personal survey asking the public the following: ‘Do you want to see me on the screen again? Much applause from the audience. Do you want me to return in vampire parts? Deafening applause from the audience.’ Bara briefly returned to the screen but with little success, unable to make the transition to a new era of sound in motion pictures. In 1925 she decided that she was through with vamping and that ‘High Comedy’ was to be her new medium. She took up a contract with Hal Roach and starred alongside Oliver Hardy in Madame Mystery (1926), directed and co-written by Stan Laurel, prior to the legendary comic duo’s teaming up together. The film was badly received and signalled the end of her onscreen acting career. She also claimed at this time that she was writing a book about her life. It was to be an epilogue to her role of screen vamp, and was to be named What Women Never Tell. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times (17 Nov. 1925), Bara stated, ‘It’s not a full confessional, only a part of what women never tell.’ She also added that, ‘One of the chapter heads is “Men, Animal, Vegetable and Mineral,” and another is “Let Her Who is Without Sex Cast the First Stone.’” At the time of her death, in 1955, her book remained unpublished, however, she had sold the rights to the book to Columbia with the intention that it was to be made into a musical, entitled ‘The Vamp.’ Rita Hayworth was rumoured to take the leading role, however the film failed to ever reach production. Perhaps more devastating is that most of the movies that she did star in from 1914 and through to the mid 1920s were lost in a fire at Fox studios storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey in 1937.
Theda Bara with skeleton, publicity still (ca. 1916-17)
Thus, it is a credit to the power of what remains, the few films and the catalogue of exotic images, which continue to provoke and powerfully stir new audiences. Theda Bara’s female vampire has proved a significantly powerful marker for representations of female vampires and in her day she set the standard for the force of the vampire’s kiss. In an era, as one newspaper journalist wrote, that was ‘nauseated with the baby-doll and bored with the flapper’ (The Atlanta Constitution, 23 Apr. 1922), Bara’s vampire saw the rise of the vamp and the birth of noir’s femme-fatale. Her successors include, Valeska Suratt, Nita Naldi, Pola Negri, Hedy Lamarr, Mae West, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall and Lana Turner to more recently Glenn Close in the notorious Fatal Attraction (1987). In vampire cinema, notable successors to Bara’s vamp are Ingrid Pitt, Barbara Shelley and the contemporary Béatrice Dalle and her devastating cannabilistic kiss in Trouble Everyday (2001). Bara’s portrayal of the ‘Vampire’ in A Fool There Was and in her roles that followed tapped into a cultural sensibility which was still railing against the gains of first wave feminism. As Bram Dijkstra has noted, the film’s emblematic force was in its ideological depiction of a test of manhood and Bara’s ‘contemporaries knew that they were watching the social vampire of female sexuality depredate civilized society.’(Evil Sisters, 1996) In an era that has witnessed a continuing backlash against feminism, as well as a supposed post-feminist liberation, such gendered ideology continues to persist in cinema’s ongoing fascination with dangerous female sexuality. And, amidst all this, Theda Bara’s powerful image remains as dangerously enigmatic as it did in 1915.