TALES OF THE SUPERNATURAL AND FANTASTIC LITERATURE
THE ADVENT OF THE GOTHIC NOVEL
THE ADVENT OF THE GOTHIC NOVEL
Who has not awoken in the night to a sense of foreboding from some bad dream to feel the icy hands of Death upon them, unable to move as if restrained by some great preternatural force? To experience this ‘night time attack’ can leave the victim very unsettled, but experts will tell us that the condition is quite common and has the innocuous name of ‘sleep paralysis’, but to those who suffer this torment, the terror is very real. It can be almost akin to a crisis of faith and leave the sufferer questioning their position in the great scheme of things and of course, the big question: what lies beyond life!
We ridicule those people who dare to suggest there may be the possibility that the soul survives death and that the spirits of the departed can cause effect upon the material plain, such as haunting and possession etc. Like most experiences, until it is received empirically, directly through physical, sentient a posteriori knowledge, belief in the unknown remains just that, merely a belief and we trust to blind faith. In fact, blind faith is not so very far from the supernatural as one might think for there is the element of suspense at our ‘occult’ universe and the thought of nothing beyond our miniscule moment of ‘being’ in a physical existence saddens most people to the point that they have to invent a philosophical purpose to their existence, as in reincarnation and personal deities of worship; blind faith and the supernatural, like Christianity and religions in general is a way of deciding your own path between the darkness and the light and creating your own afterlife.
Dreaming gives us a glimpse of the possibility of something beyond, and in the pursuit of the fantastic, mankind has resorted to strange spiritual practices and chemicals to disturb the mind from its functions in perceived reality, to cross-over, as if shorting the brain’s electrical impulse that we may penetrate a nether realm of vision and fright; a place where all that which we know may be turned upside down and given a dimensional purity and integrity that makes us question the true nature of our existence and habitation. We all of us enter this ‘paranormal’ domain through the process of dreaming and to some who experience vivid or lucid dreaming; this world can become more than just a nightmare vision, and here we can also encounter the notion of the incubus and succubus. The feeling of travelling somewhere distinct and as real as our own physical world can persist long into the waking hours and remain with depth and clarity for many days; it is almost as if we have been sent a ‘supernatural message’ from beyond the veil of the known universe that hints at something more than the established senses are at work here and a heightened state of awareness has been programmed into our genes. Who is to say that madness (which often accompanies creativity) is not the breakdown of this altered dimensional state which affects the corporeal system at its baser level, damaging the mind in its process?
The creative writer makes sense of this confusion found in the imagination and is able to arrange it into some sort of order to produce works of fiction; when the images are left to explore their own dimensions and pathways, the writer has the freedom to let their imagination flow beyond the ‘normal’ confines of existence and to stray upon the ‘abnormal’ or ‘subnormal’ and thus create works of great supernatural content in the form of fantastic literature and science fiction.
Humanity has always been fascinated by tales of ‘supernatural beings’ such as fairies and vampires and monsters of all shapes and sizes. Fear is a natural emotion and the fear felt through hearing a ghost story is a safe way of interpreting the different elements psychologically and deciding on different outcomes or endings for the situations found on the page. The telling of ghost tales stretches the listener’s imagination and helps develop strong imagery and the art of storytelling. Our ancestors placed great importance in the telling of folktales, myths and fairy stories and throughout history the recording and depicting of those tales has been paramount. Even the images found within the Old Testament describe the many pleasant and varied ways in which the soul can be corrupted and destroyed!
Dante (1265-1321) for instance, in his Inferno delights in the tortures of the soul in torment and later, Milton (1608-1674) in his Paradise Lost of 1667, lingers upon the appalling punishments of the damned found in Hell and Pandemonium, Satan’s vast empire and Capital City. In this we encounter the tremendous scale and nature of the underworld as seen by Milton’s imagination and his interpretation of that world. Shakespeare (1564-1616) uses similar devices to portray the ‘supernatural’ elements in his plays, such as in Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.
As we look at history and glimpse the new scientific discoveries and developments, so in literature we find these new horizons explored. In John Webster’s (1580-1634) The White Devil of 1612, he uses the clever device of a mirror to show scenes at a distance, therefore utilizing science where his predecessors would have used witchcraft.
Christopher Marlowe’s (1564-1593) drama The Tragical History of Dr Faustus was published in 1604 and the earliest known performance of it was in 1594. It was probably the first dramatization to depict the theme of a pact with the Devil. Faust is miserable and weary of science, so he turns to the occult arts and conjures the evil spirit Mephistopheles. Faust agrees to surrender his soul to the Devil after twenty-four years of earthly pleasure and infinite knowledge and power. During this time Mephistopheles must pander to his every demand. Helen of Troy is summoned up by Faust as his image of the ideal woman and he addresses her with the immortal words ‘was this the face that launched a thousand ships…’ At the surrender of Faust’s soul there is a real psychological exploration of his fear and anguish.
In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) Faust (part one 1808) we begin with the prologue which shows Mephistopheles in Heaven and he is on a quest to ruin the soul of Faust, who is unhappy with the world around him. After meeting Mephistopheles he becomes his servant and Faust later seduces Gretchen and causes her death.
In part two (1832) we see the beautiful Helen pursued by Faust to no avail… Later, Faust reclaims a stretch of land from the sea and he is attacked and blinded. On his death bed he cries ‘Ah, stay, thou art so fair’ and he falls dead. Hell attempts to take his soul but the intervention of angels rescue him from damnation and eternal torment.
From Milton to Marlowe and Goethe, the Devil is seen as a supernatural entity of great power and knowledge, and not some infernal beast of destruction and blasphemy; he is elegant and charming and it is not surprising that so many artists wanted to depict this unearthly being with a grandeur to equal Gods!
THE COBWEBBED STAIR
Horace Walpole (1717-1797) published his novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764 and it is considered to be the first true Gothic novel. It is the tale of Prince Manfred’s attempts to found a family dynasty after the death of his only son and heir Conrad, who is crushed to death by the falling of a gigantic helmet in the courtyard of the castle, a brilliant image of ‘supernatural’ proportions. In fact, huge pieces of armour seem to appear throughout the novel, seemingly from nowhere. The book became massively influential and stirred many imaginations in the direction of Gothic as a literary form.
William Beckford (1760-1844) wrote his The History of the Caliph Vathek (or just Vathek for short) in 1782 and it has fascinating descriptions of far away lands with great halls and palaces which would become typical of the fantastic novel. But it was a woman who really put the romance into the Gothic novel. When Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) wrote her famous novel The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794, it was no fireside yarn she was spinning of witchcraft and ghosts! She was writing for a new and particular audience that craved tales of fright with interludes of romance. Her novels contain all the spectacular motifs of Gothic writing such as gloomy landscapes with mountains reaching into the sky, dark, wild and rugged ravines with water cascading in torrents of nature’s powerful force; trees are thunder-blasted and overhang deep precipices. Upon this supernatural scenery she imprints a fantastical story of passion bound within a phantom-haunted castle owned by some sad and sinister figure, and with these ingredients a real tour de force is woven. But within her plots, although the suspense is developed and held for long periods, the ‘supernatural’ elements seem to get explained away as ordinary and physical. Nevertheless, she was instrumental in the development of the Gothic novel and her importance cannot be underestimated. Mrs Radcliffe wrote six novels – The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1792), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), The Italian (1797) and Gaston de Blondeville (1802), but it is ‘Udolpho’ she is most remembered for. In the novel the orphaned Emily St Aubert is taken to a remote castle in the Apennines by her aunt’s dastardly husband Montoni. Emily’s honour and her fortune are under threat and it seems she is also amidst an awful supernatural threat within the castle walls. Emily escapes and returns to France and eventually to the arms of her lover Valancourt.
Also during this age of Gothic imagination the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) captured the supernatural essence in his paintings which have a ghostly quality. His most famous work is The Nightmare of 1781. Another famous illustrator of the fantastic was the French artist Paul Gustave Dore (1832-1883) who produced some wonderful supernatural influenced images such as his interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Following on from the dark castle passageways of Mrs Radcliffe we find Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) who wrote his novel Ambrosio, or The Monk (1795) at the age of twenty and in only ten weeks. Unlike Mrs Radcliffe, Lewis was more explicit in his portrayal of passion and found himself threatened with prosecution. The novel contains tales within tales and sub plots which include incest, rape, matricide and murder. His scenes of horror are reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade.
Lewis’s other works include a drama called The Castle Spectre of 1798, Tales of Terror (1799), Tales of Wonder (1801), and the poem Crazy Jane of 1797 which tells of an encounter with a maniac using material Lewis collected from his visits to asylums.
BEYOND THE BOUNDRIES OF DEATH –
Mary Shelley (1797-1851) created one of the classic horror tales of all time with her Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818). In it are all the elements of the Gothic novel combined with the knowledge of science and philosophy. The construction of a living being from dead matter is pure alchemy and somewhat similar to talismanic magic where an object is ‘possessed’ by an energy or spirit to do the bidding of the magician. Baron Victor Frankenstein utilizes the corpses of the recently dead to build his perfect superman – the monster. Victor is an arrogant aristocrat, a student of science and natural philosophy who challenges the thought of the day concerning life and death. After all his hideous labours in his laboratory, he harnesses the power of nature, the force of life itself in the form of an electric storm to strike the corpse, his new Adam, and bring it back to life. His creation of course turns out to be a tragic figure that is shunned by all and driven to murder all those associated with the Baron, who also rejects him. Frankenstein refuses to construct a female mate for the monster who chillingly swears that he will be with Victor on his wedding day and he keeps that promise, killing Victor’s wife Elizabeth by strangling her. In a stunning climax where Victor has pursued the monster into the waste regions of the Arctic, Victor perishes, while the monster disappears searching for the release of death.
Two years later, Charles Robert Maturin (1782-1824) published his Melmoth, the Wanderer (1820), a Faustian tale of ancestry that has moments of real terror. Melmoth has sold his soul to the Devil for the promise of an unnaturally long life; Melmoth offers relief from suffering to each of the various characters of the novel if they will only take over his pact with the Devil. Oscar Wilde chose the name Sebastian Melmoth while living in exile following his trial.
Like most things that are successful, they are ripe for parody and Gothic literature was no exception. Jane Austen (1775-1817) did just that with her novel Northanger Abbey (1818) which ridicules the Gothic Romance found in such tales as Mrs Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, contrasting the supernatural elements with stark reality. In the same year, Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1816) is published and it satirizes and mocks other authors such as Byron, Shelley and Coleridge who were pre-disposed to melancholia and constructed their characters in the heroic yet doomed and laden with melancholy manner. Peacock mocks this otherworldly or ‘supernatural’ influence; this gloom which seems to ‘fashionably’ pervade their work.
A NEW HORROR
Nightmares it seems were a reality for the great writer of fantastic tales Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). There is a strange darkness in his work that probes deep within the psyche and it is no coincidence why psycho-analysts found so much neurosis within Poe’s work for they reflected his own obsessions and defects. His first book of poetry Tamerlane and Other Poems was published in 1827, followed by his first collection of stories Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in1839. His most famous collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination, weaves a dark spell through such torments as Buried Alive (a personal fear of Poe’s) to the crumbling Gothic splendour of The Masque of the Red Death and The Fall of the House of Usher; this latter is a tale of morbid sickness and decay, of an unnatural attachment between brother and sister Roderick and Madeline Usher. Madeline slowly succumbs to catalepsy and premature burial. Poe is a master of the macabre psychological terror and his tales are filled by the subtle stench of incest, necrophilia, paranoia, sadism and obsession.
But it was an Irish man who would introduce us to a new horror in the form of a suave Count from a long and distinguished lineage – Dracula. Bram Stoker (1847-1912) was born in Dublin and he published the story of the vampire Dracula in 1897. The Count comes to Whitby from his castle in Transylvania and the book is ingeniously written in the form of diary entries and letters by the young solicitor protagonist Jonathon Harker. Dracula on his arrival at Whitby proceeds to visit and vampirize Lucy Westenra, a friend of Jonathon’s fiancée Mina. Professor Van Helsing attempts to save the young woman but she dies and becomes one of the un-dead, until she is dispatched with a stake through the heart. Dracula now turns his attention to Mina and the climax of the novel is a furious and thrilling chase of the Count in his coffin by Van Helsing and the others to Transylvania. He is eventually destroyed by beheading and a stake through the heart and his loathsome corpse crumbles to dust.
Other works by Stoker include The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), The Lair of the White Worm (1911), and Dracula’s Guest and other weird stories (1914).
In Oscar Wilde’s (1854-1900) novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) we have a re-telling of the Faust legend in which Dorian, wishing to remain forever young and handsome, sells his soul to the Devil. Dorian lives a lavish lifestyle of pleasure and never changes or ages, yet the portrait of his delicate youthful beauty, kept in the attic, ages and decays becoming grotesquely ugly. It bears the stamp of his unmentionable debaucheries and corruption, there upon his noble and beautiful brow.
Another Irish writer, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) was a master of supernatural literature. He had a remarkable understanding of psychology and his best works are his novel Uncle Silas (1864) and his collection of strange tales In a Glass Darkly (1872). This collection includes his great vampire novella Carmilla with its subtle lesbian undertones. Other stories in the collection are Green Tea; The Familiar; Mr Justice Harbottle (or An Account of some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street); and The Room in the Dragon Volant.
Henry James (1843-1916) was a distinguished American writer whose supernatural ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898) is open to much interpretation. It is the story of a young governess in charge of the Master’s young niece and nephew, Flora and Miles. The young boy, Miles is expelled from his boarding school and we are not told the reason for this, and neither is the governess whose curiosity, like our own, desires the truth, however sordid. Therefore there is much assumption on the wickedness of his misdemeanour and our own natural conclusion is that some unnatural sexual behaviour has taken place. There are whispers and secrets and we are never quite sure whether the two children, Miles and little Flora are in contact with and being seduced by the spirits of the former governess Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. The new governess fearing the corruption of the children sends Flora away to safety and stays with Miles, but tragically Miles dies and we are still left wondering: were the ghosts of the wicked previous governess and her lover ever really present or was it all dreamt by the fantastic and perhaps mad mind of the new governess?
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-1894) the Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (1886) we are in no doubt as to the nature of the supernatural element. The physician, Dr Jeckyll discovers a drug that can separate the personality distinctly into two concentrated halves of good and bad. The bad, Mr Hyde absorbs all negative and evil intentions and gradually dominates Dr Jeckyll’s whole persona and his eventual destruction.
The characters created by Lewis Carroll (C. L. Dodgson, 1832-1898) are more than just children’s stories for they drift in and out of fantastic fiction with their nightmarish situations sustained by a belief in logic which makes them unique. A lesser known work by Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno (1889 and volume 2 1893) contains some of the worst prose he ever wrote, but it does contain an interesting device where time slips from reality into an unreal, mirror image which gradually becomes very confusing and chaotic for the reader to follow.
Also worth mentioning are the science fiction novels of the wonderful Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) which include The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898).
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) penned some of the most weirdly wonderful stories you are ever likely to find. His tales hint at a spectral darkness beyond our own world, where time has little meaning and strange beings are always ready to collide with our own dimension and inhabit and posses it. The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907) is set on board a stranded ship and its atmosphere is very unpleasant indeed, dripping with tension and romance and incomprehensible blasphemies that rise out of the sea. In The House on the Borderland (1908), we find ourselves in Ireland, in an old house reputed to be haunted which is the focus of the dreadful forces from beyond our own realm. Time swiftly stretches into an eternity almost at the blink of an eye, at light speed in fact and inevitably, falls towards the collapse of the universe.
The Ghost Pirates (1909) is another sea story in which a haunted ship is terrorised by the evil spirits of seafarers past. The Night Land (1912) again uses the element of time to create suspense. Hodgson summons from the depths the vile essence of evil that waits to consume us all and his works are tales of true horror and heightened suspense.
In the same vein as Hodgson is the complex American writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). His fascinating tales speak of the old gods of the cosmos before mankind’s intrusion upon it; far beyond our solar system in alien regions where these inter-dimensional beings dwell. He is very influential and his curious body of work still has the power to immerse the reader in whatever nightmare or weird vision he has created.
His works include The Tomb (1922), Dagon (1918), The Cats of Ulthar (1920), The Nameless City (1921), The Lurking Fear (1923), The Rats in the Walls (1924) The Horror at Red Hook (1927), The Colour out of Space (1927), The Call of Cthulhu (1928), The Dunwich Horror (1929), Azathoth (1933), From Beyond (1934), At the Mountains of Madness (1936), The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936), The Shadow out of Time (1936) and The Haunters of the Dark (1936). His stories were printed in the pulp magazine Weird Tales and Lovecraft’s great gift to horror was his Cthulhu mythos, a pantheon of demonic deities from a far dimension; the protagonist usually summons these awful entities by the use of the forbidden grimoire – The Necronomicon.
We can see parallels between Lovecraft’s creations and the writings of the occultist Aleister Crowley. To those familiar with Crowley’s work these ‘old gods’ are not dissimilar to the Goetic demons found in the Lesser Key of Solomon, or indeed the demons of Abramelin. Kenneth Grant the occult scholar and author notes that the demons Crowley speaks of in his Magick are in essence the same as the cosmic energies evoked by Lovecraft and I would add that it is a delusion to believe these ‘energies’ are forces from outside evoked into the sphere (or triangle) of existence and that they are already within residing in the brain, an inner cosmos that we are each of us capable of conjuring.
HIDDEN TERRORS AND THE INVENTION OF THE GHOST
Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) was a master of the English ghost story and he was a notable scholar. Provost of King’s College, Cambridge and Provost of Eton, his tales were initially composed to be read to friends at Christmas. His published works are Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious and other Ghost Stories (1925). His Collected Ghost Stories appeared in 1931. He is considered by many to be the greatest authority on the art of ghost story writing and his stories have an intimacy and beauty that can turn in the space of a word into true horror.
Arthur Llewellyn Machen (1863-1947) was born in Caerleon on Usk in Wales and his work is the most weirdly wonderful you will ever find! He was an extraordinary writer who was obsessive about his home environment and its connection to the past, particularly its Roman period and the many ruins that can be found in the landscape around Caerleon on Usk. He found a deeply spiritual and ‘otherworldly’ element in his native hills and valleys that held cosmic proportions for Machen. After the death of Machen’s wife Amy, he sought solace in spirituality and through his friend the occult writer Arthur Edward Waite, he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1899, taking the magical name Avallaunius.
His most famous works are The Hill of Dreams (1907) in which the hero Lucien Taylor, a writer, believes himself to be a faun in touch with a sensual and erotic lost pagan realm. His story The Bowmen is about angelic English archers returning to life to assist the British soldiers at the bloody Battle of Mons during the First World War, which at the time was believed by many to be true. Other great works are The Great God Pan (1894), The Novel of the White Powder, and The Novel of the Black Seal.
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was another very influential and prolific writer of the macabre and much of his stories, like Machen’s link with a past that has been distorted in some way, where nature has been thwarted in its natural flow and bent or affected. This of course takes us into the realm of the occult and Blackwood like Machen and many others at the time was attracted to the spiritual and occult societies that sprang up. Blackwood also became a member of the Hermatic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1900 taking the magical name of Umbram Fugat Veritas. His first collection of tales was The Empty House and other Ghost Stories (1906) and his best works include The Willows (1907), Ancient Sorceries (1908), The Wendigo (1910), The Centaur (1911); a collection Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural came out in 1949.
Not to the staring Day,
For all the importunate questionings he pursues
In his big, violent voice,
Shall those mild things of bulk and multitude,
The trees – God’s sentinels…
Yield of their huge, unutterable selves
But at the word Of the ancient, sacerdotal Night,
Night of many secrets, whose effect –
Transfiguring, hierophantic, dread –
Themselves alone may fully apprehend,
They tremble and are changed:
In each the uncouth, individual soul
Looms forth and glooms
Essential, and, their bodily presences
Touched with inordinate significance,
Wearing the darkness like a livery
Of some mysterious and tremendous guild,
They brood – they menace – they appal.
(from 'The Man whom the Trees Loved'. Algernon Blackwood. 1912.)
MUSIC OF THE MORBID AND MACABRE
Music like literature reflects the taste of the populace and throughout musical history fear and the supernatural have inspired some of the greatest compositions in music. Ever since sounds have been created and recorded by notation our old friend the Devil has had an interest in the musical poetry woven around him and his kind and so the following is a selection from the great and wonderful musical cupboard of the macabre!
The Italian violinist Guiseppe Tartini (1692-1770) composed his magnificent Devil’s Trill Sonata after a strange dream in which the devil appeared to him requesting to be his servant. The devil was tested on that most infernal of instruments the violin and he played the sonata. When Guiseppe awoke he noted down the composition as he had heard the devil play it to him in his dream. Another famous Italian violinist, some would say the greatest ever player of that instrument, Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) was rumoured to have associated with the devil, such was his astonishing mastery of the instrument and technical virtuoso ability.
In 1821 Carl Maria von Webern (1786-1822) composed his Der Freischutz which roughly translates as The Marksman. It is a haunting tale of a contest with seven magic bullets and the frightful journey through Wolf’s Glen at midnight.
We have a return to the legend of Faust when Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) composed The Damnation of Faust in 1846; he is also famous for his otherworldly symphony The Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. Also on the Faust theme was Franz Liszt (1811-1886) with his Faust Symphony of 1857. He returned once more with his Mephisto Waltz, four waltzes composed between 1859 and 1885. Previous to these in 1849 was his musical version of the Dance of Death, Totentanz.
German mythology and folklore were a speciality in the works of the revolutionary and controversial Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He transformed opera and gave it a stylised depth and compositions such as The Flying Dutchman and The Ride of the Valkyries shows how he developed musical themes (leitmotiv) and form so that the drama could unfold continuously.
Another interesting and much used piece is Charles Gounod’s (1818-1893) The Funeral March of a Marionette, famously known as the signature tune for Alfred Hitchcock! Other works of note are Cesar Franck’s (1822-1890) The Accursed Huntsman and Camile Saint-Saens (1835-1921) Danse Macabre of 1874.
The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) composed his Songs and Dances of Death from 1875-1877 and of course his famous Night on the Bare (or Bold) Mountain with its menacing depiction of a raging storm and something fearful approaching.
In 1896 Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) gave us the delightful little tone poem The Noonday Witch and in 1901 his opera Rusalka.
The Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) composed his Peer Gynt Suites and we return to Faust once more with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Scenes from Goethe’s Faust of 1844-1853.
Another well known work is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas (1865-1935).
I should also include the film score compositions of Bernard Hermann (1911-1975) who composed title music and sequence themes etc for such classic films as The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and Cape Fear (1962).
The great English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) set many of his operas around literary texts; his opera The Turn of the Screw (from the Henry James novel) was composed in 1954. And in a line-up of musical masterpieces of the macabre who could forget the delightful film score music of the British composer James Bernard (1925-2001). James composed the chilling music for the Hammer horror films and his magic touch can be heard on such classic films as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), Kiss of the Vampire (1962), Plague of the Zombies (1966), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), The Devil Rides Out (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) and Scars of Dracula (1970).
I would also like to include the film scores from the Universal horror films of the 1930’s – 1950’s, especially the compositions of Hans J. Salter (1896-1994), Frank Skinner (1897-1968) and the Musical Director of Universal from 1936-1944, Charles Previn (1888-1973) who between them produced such wonderful music to such classic films as The Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Wolf Man (1941) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953).
Popular music also has had its share of supernatural content such as the story of Robert Johnson (1911-1938) and his re-telling of the Faust legend with the assumption that Johnson met the Devil at the crossroads and offered his soul in return for fame. Songs such as Hellhound on my trail (1937) and Me and the Devil Blues (1937) only go to strengthen the rumour. Then there is The Rolling Stones and their album Beggar’s Banquet of 1968 with the rock classic Sympathy for the Devil. The title of their previous album also hinted at a darker interest – Their satanic Majesties Request (1967). And of course The Beatles included the occultist Aleister Crowley on the cover of their album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The White Album of 1968 had the track Helter Skelter on it and the notorious Charles Manson saw this as an apocalyptic anthem concerning race which later led to the Manson Family and the sinister murder of Sharon Tate in 1969.
Supernatural and occult content can be found in Led Zeppelin as guitarist Jimmy Page is a disciple of Aleister Crowley and at one time owned Crowley’s former home Boleskine on the banks of Loch Ness, which is said to have an ‘eerie’ presence to this day. The music of Black Sabbath formed in 1968 is very dark with its heavy guitar from Tony Iommi. David Bowie is also reputed to have dabbled with Crowley and mentions him in the song Quicksand. From the theatrical Hammer Horror style of Alice Cooper and the gore of Marilyn Manson to the Gothic rock of The Cramps; from songs such as R. Dean Taylor’s Ghost in my house (1967), Fleetwood Mac’s Black Magic Woman (1968), Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising (1969), Redbone’s Witch Queen of New Orleans (1971), Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman (1976), Kate Bush’s Hammer Horror (1978), Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London (1978) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1984), we can see the Devil has always been there and the Devil definitely has all the best tunes!
FILMS OF FANTASY AND FRIGHT
Films like other art forms have also dwelt in the depths of the supernatural for inspiration. The Universal films of the 1930’s and 1940’s were very popular and used the supernatural in literature from the Gothic to the vampire theme in their story telling.
The first prominent film by Universal was Dracula (1931) which starred Bela Lugosi as the Count. Directed by Tod Browning the story stays close to the original novel by Stoker and Lugosi portrays Dracula with a hypnotic and suave manner. Dwight Frye is the maniacal Renfield who delights in eating flies and rats. The parts set in the ruined castle with Dracula’s introduction are historic in film and the overall effect is very eerie.
Universal, after the popularity of Dracula swiftly produced Frankenstein (1931), followed by The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Black Cat (1934) inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, and The Raven (1935) also inspired by Poe; Werewolf of London (1935), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936) in which the Count’s daughter Countess Maria Zaleska, played by Gloria Holden wishes to be free of the curse of the vampire and be normal. The film was directed by Lambert Hillyer and there are some beautiful scenes in which Holden seduces a young woman who models for her as she paints her portrait. The film depicts a woman trapped by the condition of the vampire seeking psychiatric release and the subtle lesbian overtones are handled extremely well. Next we find Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Wolf Man (1941). In The Wolf Man, written by Curt Siodmark and produced/directed by George Waggner, Lon Chaney Jnr plays the title role, Larry Talbot (the wolf man) who returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales after the death of his brother in a hunting accident. He meets the beautiful daughter of the antique shop owner Gwen Conliffe, played by Evelyn Ankers and she sells him a silver wolf’s-head handled cane. They agree to meet later and go to the gypsy fair and Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm) has her fortune told. The gypsy Bela (Bela Lugosi) reads her palm and sees the pentagram, the sign of the werewolf and of his next victim. Bela attacks and kills Jenny and Larry kills the wolf (Bela), getting bitten in the process. Larry is now himself a werewolf and the scenes in which he stalks the misty woods are very memorable, enhanced by the wonderful score by Hans J. Salter and Charles Previn. Larry is eventually killed by the silver cane wielded by his father Sir John Talbot played by the great actor Claude Raines. The make-up by Jack Pierce was ahead of its time and remains an icon of cinematic history. Other films in the horror cycle are:
Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945).
Val Lewton (1904-1951) produced some wonderfully eerie films with director Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977) for RKO Radio Pictures, such as Cat People (1942) starring Simone Simon and Tom Conway; I walked with a Zombie (1943) starring Frances Dee as Betsy Connel, a Canadian nurse who cares for Jessica Holland, played by Christine Gordon. Jessica is the wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway) who owns a sugar plantation on the Isle of Saint Sebastian. The scenes in which a journey through the sugar cane at night with the wind blowing the canes is full of supernatural suspense, and we travel past animal sacrifices to a crossroads which is guarded by the huge figure of a zombie named Carre-Four, played by Darby Jones. Also in 1943 was The Leopard Man, followed by The Seventh Victim (1943) also starring Tom Conway, with Jean Brooks; The Ghost Ship (1943) starring Richard Dix and The Curse of the Cat People (1944) with Simone Simon.
The Hammer Films of the 1950’s to 1970’s are a British institution and they have given us some of our most memorable shocks on screen. It all began with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), pairing the great Peter Cushing with Christopher Lee as the monster. This was followed by Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula has risen from the grave (1968), Frankenstein must be destroyed (1969), Taste the blood of Dracula (1969), Horror of Frankenstein (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula AD 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).
Roger Corman born 1926 produced some fine adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe including The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Premature Burial (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), The Oblong Box (1968).
Other examples of films with outstanding supernatural content are: The Ghost goes West (1935) directed by Rene Clair and starring Robert Donat as Donald Glourie and as his ghostly ancestor Murdoch Glourie. The ancestral castle is moved brick by brick from Scotland to Florida and along comes the ghost Murdoch, who died a coward’s death in the eighteenth century and will not rest from haunting until a descendant of his enemy clan, the MacClaggan, admits that one Glourie is worth fifty MacClaggans! Dante’s Inferno (1935) directed by Harry Lachman contains an interesting ten minute sequence of Hell. Spencer Tracy plays Jim Carter who takes over the running of a fairground show which illustrates scenes from Dante. An inspector declares it as unsafe and Carter bribes him. There is a fatal disaster and we are shown a vision of the Inferno. It is also famous for an appearance by Rita Hayworth as a dancer. Wuthering Heights (1939), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) in which Claude Rains plays Mr. Jordan, a Heavenly book-keeper who has to right a mistake when boxer Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) turns up in Heaven fifty years before his time. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) is the story of a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and Daniel Webster the great Lawyer who defends his case against the Devil. The Undying Monster (1942), a werewolf film which tells of a curse upon the Hammond family since the Crusades whereby each family member may become a werewolf; after several wolf attacks it seems the curse is active once again. I Married a Witch (1942) directed by Rene Clair and starring the seductive Veronica Lake as Jennifer, a witch who returns to life in the body of a beautiful woman, seeking revenge on the descendant of the person responsible for her persecution and death, (roles played by Frederic March). Heaven Can Wait (1943) has Laird Creger playing His Excellency – the Devil who listens to the tale of Don Ameche’s not so wicked after all life and decides upon his fate. The Canterville Ghost (1944), The Enchanted Cottage (1944) has a magical quality as two lonely people, one is a disfigured veteran of the war named Oliver played by Robert Young, and the other is the shy and home-loving Laura (Dorothy McGuire); they retire to a secretive seaside cottage and find only the true beauty of their souls and not the cruel hurt of the world outside. Gaslight (1944), The Uninvited (1944) starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as owners of a spooky Welsh/Cornish coastal property with all the ghostly trappings! The Return of the Vampire (1944), Dead of Night (1945) a portmanteau of four horror tales from Ealing Studio; Mervyn Johns plays architect Walter Craig who is among the gathering at a country house. Craig mentions that he has been there before and recognises all the guests from a recurring dream. They each tell a story and the more famous tale is that of the ventriloquist (played by Michael Redgrave) and his dummy. Blithe Spirit (1945) has the great Rex Harrison seeing his mischievous first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond) and her attempts to break up his second marriage to Constance Cummings; David Lean directed this adaptation of a Noel Coward play and Margaret Rutherford plays the wonderful eccentric medium Madame Arcati. The Mark of the Vampire (1945), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) an updating of the Faust legend based on the novel by Oscar Wilde, starring Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray who reveals his diseased and corrupt soul in a glorious Technicolor portrait in the attic ending. A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Angel on my Shoulder (1946) starring Claude Rains as the Devil. Uncle Silas (1947) an adaptation of Le Fanu’s story by Gainsborough studios and starring Jean Simmons; The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz for 20th Century Fox is a romantic fantasy starring Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir, a lonely widow who rents Gull Cottage. The Cottage is haunted by the former owner Daniel Gregg, a sea Captain played by Rex Harrison. To save Lucy from poverty and losing Gull Cottage, which she adores, the Captain dictates his book ‘Blood and Swash’ to her and it is published, thus solving her financial problems. A fruitless relationship with the married children’s writer Miles Fairley (Uncle Neddy) played by George Sanders increases her sadness. The years pass and Lucy’s daughter Anna grows up and there are some wonderful scenes and a happy ending as Lucy (after her death) walks out of the house reunited with the sea Captain again. Portrait of Jennie (1948)… Other films are: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) starring Ava Gardner and James Mason; Night of the Demon (1957) directed by Jacques Tourneur for Columbia and based on the M R James story Casting the Runes; Bell, Book and Candle (1958) starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon. The Innocents (1961), an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw starring Deborah Kerr. The Haunting (1963) and The Legend of Hell House (1973).
Also of interest are the films of Kenneth Anger which have an occult element to them – Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1963), Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969), and Lucifer Rising (1972).
Those early films still have the magic to create a world in which we can escape and revisit and more modern films also have an element of fascination for the supernatural which seems to be growing in popularity, due no doubt to such programmes as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ghost Whisperer and Medium, and of course Most Haunted; not to mention the current interest in all things ‘un-dead’ as in the vampire novels and films!
As long as we dare to dream and are curious about the spirit realm and life after death; as long as we wish to be enthralled by tales of superstitions and folklore; of the existence of beings from other worlds and ghostly entities present within our own world; as long as we are prepared to explore the darkness within our own souls, then there will always be scope to imagine what lies within the supernatural and the fantastic.
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