My favourite Christmas things

 

From pixabay.com

 

This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.

 

 

Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.

 

 

In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.

 

Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.

 

© Vintage

 

Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.

 

Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!

 

© BBC

 

Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)

 

© BBC

 

As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?

 

Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.

 

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

 

So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.

 

The unsettling Robert Aickman

 

From faberfindsblog.co.uk

 

Over the years I’ve learned to be sceptical of the publicity blurbs adorning the covers of new paperback books.  Usually, these assure potential buyers that the book in question is an absolute page-turner that you just can’t put down.  However, the blurb on the cover of The Wine-Dark Sea, a collection of short stories by the late writer Robert Aickman, which was originally published in 1988 and which appeared in a new edition last year courtesy of Faber & Faber, is bang on the money.

 

It contains a comment by Neil Gaiman, no less, who says of the author: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was.  All I know is that he did it beautifully.”

 

That’s as good a description as any of the feeling I get when reading Aickman.  You’re aware that he’s going to perform a trick involving some literary sleight-of-hand.  You don’t know what the trick’s going to be, or when he’s going to do it; and afterwards, you’re not even sure if the trick has been performed, or what the point of it was.  Then you mull it over.  And finally, most of the time, you decide: Wow! That was impressive!

 

I have, though, added ‘most of the time’ as a disclaimer to that previous sentence.  Because, very occasionally, my reaction to an Aickman story has been different: What a load of cobblers!

 

(c) Mandarin

 

I first came across Aickman’s work in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his stories cropped up in horror anthologies such as The Far Reaches of Fear (1976), New Terrors (1980) and Dark Forces (1980).  Although they rubbed shoulders with some grisly items in those collections, Aickman’s stories didn’t fit comfortably with the ‘horror’ label.  And the claim that some people made about him, that he was actually a ‘ghost’ story writer in the mould of M.R. James, didn’t convince either.  Aickman liked to describe his stories as ‘strange’ ones and ‘strange’ is probably the adjective I’d attach to them too.

 

It wasn’t just his fiction that seemed out-of-place.  Aickman himself seemed out-of-place in post-war Britain, being a man of old-fashioned views and erudite – some would say ‘elitist’ – tastes.  He was a conservationist who co-founded the Inland Waterways Association and battled to prevent Britain’s no-longer-in-commercial-use canal system from being filled in; a political conservative; and a lover of ballet, opera, classical music and highbrow theatre.  I imagine that by the 1970s, when the UK’s political and cultural landscape was one of Labour governments and frequent industrial action by trade unions, of glam rock and bubble-gum pop music, of cheap-and-cheerful downmarket TV shows like Crossroads and On the Buses, he was not a particularly happy bunny.  Inevitably, this sense of alienation appears in his fiction.  His stories feature a lot of discontented middle-aged men (or women) who are set in their ways and don’t do a good job coping with a changing, modern world that seems diametrically opposed to their ways.

 

I found much of Aickman’s work baffling when, as a teenager, I first encountered it; although I was impressed by his contribution to New Terrors, a 55-page story called The Stains.  It tells the tale of Stephen, a widowed civil servant, who meets a mysterious, wild-seeming, almost dryad-like girl called Nell whilst rambling on some remote moors.  He becomes infatuated with Nell, with the result that he takes early retirement from his job, abandons his ties with the ‘civilised’ world and attempts to live with her in an empty, tumbledown house on the moors.  But the story is no New Age male fantasy.  Aickman steers it in a darker direction.  Nell is an embodiment of the natural world and, obsessed with her, Stephen succumbs to his natural instincts – but nature soon intrudes in a more grotesque way.  As their romance progresses, Stephen notices weird moulds, fungi and lichen spreading across the walls and furniture around him.  There are even hints that these agents of decay have manifested themselves on his flesh too.

 

The Stains is regarded as one of Aickman’s most autobiographical stories.  Many people see in Stephen’s unpleasantly doomed relationship with Nell a metaphor for Aickman’s love affair with the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.  After being involved with him, and then with Laurie Lee and Arthur Koestler, Howard married Kingsley Amis in 1965.  Aickman, whose obsession with Howard was described by one friend as a ‘mental aberration’, must have found the thought that she’d chosen the increasingly boorish Amis over him hard to stomach.  And incidentally, like a good number of Aickman’s stories, The Stains shows that he wasn’t afraid to flavour his work – no matter how fuddy-duddy the characters – with a strong dose of eroticism.

 

(c) Fontana

 

My teenage self was sufficiently curious to seek out more of Aickman’s work and I located two collections of his short stories, Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975).  Predictably, some of those stories bewildered me, and a few irritated me; but several, like The Stains, have haunted me ever since.  (Incidentally, I often wonder if, long before he became the front-man for the goth-rock band Bauhaus, a young Peter Murphy read the earlier book; and was so impressed by it that he pinched its title for the Bauhaus song Dark Entries, which was released as a single in 1980.)

 

One story I remember well is The Swords, in which a young travelling salesman goes to bed with a strangely blank woman whom he’s encountered at a seedy carnival sideshow. In bed, inevitably, he discovers that she isn’t what she seems.  Also memorable is The Hospice, a Kafka-esque tale of a motorist getting lost at night and asking for shelter at the institution of the title.  He isn’t inside the hospice for long before he notices odd things about how the inmates are cared for — most disturbingly, in the dining room, he sees that one patient is shackled to the floor.

 

And in Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, Aickman tackles one of the commonest tropes in horror fiction in one of its most traditional settings.  It purports to be a series of diary entries written by a young woman in 1815 who’s accompanying her parents on a dull-sounding tour of central Europe.  She becomes excited, though, when she discovers that they’re in the same neighbourhood as her secret hero, Lord Byron, who lives there ‘in riot and wickedness’.  And she soon encounters her own personal Lord Bryon in the form of a mysterious gentleman attending a local contessa’s party.  His ‘skin is somewhat pallid’, his nose is ‘aquiline and commanding’ and, most suspiciously of all, his mouth is ‘scarlet’.   You can guess where this is heading.

 

Aickman’s approach to telling creepy stories was subtle, mannered and leisurely – often, his stories needed a lot of build-up before they reached their denouements.  At the start of the 1980s this approach seemed anachronistic.  British literary horror had indeed been subtle, mannered and leisurely once, back in the days of M.R. James and E.F. Benson; but in the mid-1970s it’d experienced a punk-rock moment when James Herbert unleashed a slew of bestselling horror novels like The Rats and The Fog that were unapologetically in your face with gore, violence and grottiness.  And a little later, in the 1980s, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series would pioneer a style of horror-writing that was in equal parts perverse, visionary and spectacularly gruesome.

 

So when I read in a newspaper in 1981 that Aickman had died of cancer – which, in his typically obstinate way, he’d refused to have any conventional medical treatment for, preferring instead to rely on dubious ‘homeopathic’ cures – I assumed, sadly, that his work would soon be out of fashion, out of print and out of readers’ memories.

 

(c) Mandarin

 

Years later, I stumbled across a copy of a posthumously-published collection by him called The Unsettled Dust (1990).  It contained the odd story that annoyed me, but generally I greatly enjoyed it.  By now I knew what to expect from Aickman and was mature enough to appreciate his elegant prose, his subtle build-up of suspense, his oddball but endearingly-drawn characters and his moments of utter strangeness.  Admittedly, in many cases, I wasn’t sure what happened at the stories’ ends; and even after thinking about them carefully, I still wasn’t sure.  But what the hell?  With Aickman, the pleasure was in getting there.

 

I particularly liked the title story, in which an official stays at a stately home whilst negotiating the transfer of the house’s running from the hands of its aristocratic inhabitants into the hands of the National Trust.  He discovers a peculiar room deep inside the house where, like in a giant snow globe, huge patches of dust are continually and spectrally floating through the air.  This illustrates another of Aickman’s talents, being able to convincingly weave into his stories scenes and incidents that are totally outlandish.  So sober is the tone of everything else that’s going on that you readily accept these mad bits as part of the narrative.

 

Nonetheless, it seemed appropriate that I’d found The Unsettled Dust in a rack of second-hand books of a corner of a small antiques shop in a village in rural County Suffolk – an obscure place to find an obscure book by an obscure writer.

 

But, happily, I was wrong.  Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Robert Aickman, which reached a peak in 2014 – the centenary of his year of birth – when Faber & Faber republished The Wine-Dark Sea, Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mind and The Unsettled Dust.  His work has been championed by Neil Gaiman; by Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen; and by Dame Edna Everage himself (or herself), Barry Humphries, who in addition to being a comedian and actor is a committed bibliophile with a library of 25,000 books.  And the Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph have all printed articles about him lately.

 

I’ve just finished reading the stories contained in The Wine-Dark Sea and it’s possibly my favourite Aickman collection yet.  I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, though – this being Aickman, there has to be at least one story that gets on my wick.  In this case the offender is Growing Boys, a satiric fantasy about a woman who has to deal with two sons growing at a supernatural rate, to supernatural sizes, and becoming criminal psychopaths.  An ineffectual police force, an ineffectual school system and an ineffectual father (who’s more interested in running for parliament as a Liberal Party candidate) do nothing to stop them.  Aickman seemingly uses the story to bemoan the delinquency of the younger generation and the inadequacy of Britain’s post-war institutions.  At the same time, he depicts another character, a crusty old uncle with a zeal for using guns and artillery, with apparent approval.  It’s reactionary but, much worse, it isn’t funny.

 

Another pair of stories in The Wine-Dark Sea show Aickman taking two more of his modern-day bugbears and channelling his indignation at them into macabre stories — but much more successfully than he does with Growing Boys.  Never Visit Venice lays into the modern phenomenon of mass tourism.  Its hero is so disappointed in how the historic Italian city has been degraded by sightseers that, unwisely, he ends up taking a ride in an infernal gondola that seems to have been punted out through the gates of hell.

 

Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, meanwhile, is about an unsociable man who, while minding an apartment for a friend, gets addicted to using the apartment’s telephone.  Through it, he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not really exist.  Telephones were becoming a common feature of British households at the time the story was written, presumably to Aickman’s discomfort.  Perhaps it’s just as well that he didn’t live to see the situation today, when mobiles and smart-phones have practically taken over the world.

 

However, for me, the best story in The Wine-Dark Sea is The Inner Room, which is about a haunted doll’s house.  Now haunted doll’s houses have appeared in many scary stories over the years, most famously in one written by M.R. James called – surprise! – The Haunted Doll’s House.  But Aickman infuses The Inner Room with a wry, sad humour.  Its climax, on the other hand, is unexpectedly and phantasmagorically weird and reminds me a little of the fiction of Angela Carter.

 

Incidentally, so in vogue is Aickman now that there’s a Facebook page devoted to him at https://www.facebook.com/weareforthedark.  And somebody has even set up a twitter account that allegedly offers tweets from ‘the dead Robert Aickman’ — you’ll find this at https://twitter.com/robertaickman.  Robert Aickman with a presence on social media?  I’m sure he would have loved that.  Not.

 

(c) Berkley

 

Was there anything this man couldn’t do?

 

(c) WingNut Films

 

For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.

 

The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?

 

I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.

 

From @joancollinsobe

 

Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.

 

Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)

 

Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.

 

Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”

 

Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.

 

In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.

 

In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.

 

Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).

 

(c) Fox News

 

Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.

 

(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films

 

As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.

 

Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).

 

He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.

 

(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker

 

Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)

 

Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.

 

(c) Compton Films

 

In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.

 

In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.

 

(c) Hammer Films

 

In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.

 

Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.

 

The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.

 

From @sybildanning

 

Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!

 

From zimbio.com

 

When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.

 

Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.

 

(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.

 

And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/postscript-christopher-lee

http://blogs.indiewire.com/leonardmaltin/joe-dante-and-john-landis-remember-christopher-lee-20150612

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/alice-cooper-dedicates-his-legend-award-to-sir-christopher-lee/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ9se8i4ujs

 

(c) Seven Keys

 

The uncanny May Sinclair

 

(c) Wordsworth Editions

 

Another entry about scary stuff – we are, after all, in the bleak November, with the days getting shorter and the nights getting longer, falling leaves revealing skeletal trees and the winter winds beginning to howl.  I’ve just spent a few days reading Uncanny Stories, a collection of supernatural short stories by May Sinclair, a writer, poetess, literary critic and feminist who lived from 1863 to 1946.

 

During her life, Sinclair was also a suffragette, a volunteer with an ambulance corps that helped wounded soldiers in Flanders during World War I and a member of the Society of Psychical Research.  She was also the first person to use the term ‘stream of consciousness’ when describing the now-commonplace literary device made popular by James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Tragically, her literary career ended in the late 1920s, thanks to the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and by the time of her death a decade-and-a-half later she’d been forgotten by the literary lights she’d once fraternised with, who included the poet Ezra Pound.

 

Uncanny Stories was first published in 1923, a time when the most famous writer of ghost stories in British literature, Montague Rhodes James, was still alive.  I’m a big fan of M.R. James, but it annoys me when mainstream literary critics applaud James’s ghostly short stories for their ‘subtlety’ and ‘delicacy’ and ‘understated-ness’.  For example, if you’ve read James’s story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, my Lad, whose climax sees a mysterious, primordial thing taking physical form in the linen of the spare bed in the hero’s room, like a self-assembling mummy, you’ll know it isn’t that subtle, delicate or understated.  The story ends with an image that’s terrifyingly in-your-face.  Much of the time, in fact, James doesn’t imply his supernatural terrors, as those critics claim he does – he shows them.  However, if you want proper subtlety, delicacy and understated-ness in your ghost stories, you should read the examples of the genre penned by May Sinclair.

 

There are ghosts in many of the tales in Uncanny Stories, but usually those ghosts serve to cast light on the psychology of the tales’ living protagonists.   In The Token, the ghost is of a gentle, devoted woman who manifests herself only for as long as it takes her repressed, uptight husband to admit to something he never admitted while she was alive – that he loved her.  (The husband, writes Sinclair, “suffers from being Scottish, so that if he has a feeling, he makes it a point of honour to pretend that he hasn’t it.”  So it was all John Knox’s fault.)

 

A dead wife also figures in The Nature of the Evidence, wherein the widowed husband – “one of those bigoted materialists of the nineteenth-century type who believe that consciousness is a purely physiological function, and that when you’re dead, you’re dead” – remarries, not out of love but because he cold-bloodedly recognises his own sexual needs and resolves to satisfy them: “It’s a physical necessity…  I shan’t marry the sort of woman who’ll expect anything more.”  Needless to say, when the ghost of his first wife inconveniently materialises, his rationalism, and his second marriage, take an unexpected hit.

 

In If the Dead Knew the supernatural and psychological tension revolves around a mother-son relationship rather than a husband-wife one.  Meanwhile, The Victim seems for much of its length to be a more traditional story wherein a servant murders his master and then becomes increasingly tormented by the murdered man’s spectre.  But while the ghost in a conventional story would be out for revenge, the ghost here has more complex motives, as are revealed in the story’s unexpected denouement.

 

The Intercessor is the final and most impressive story in the collection, recounting a haunting by a child’s ghost that, gradually, leads the narrator to understand the emotional circumstances of the child’s still-living parents.  The story’s intensity, and the unforgiving wildness of its setting – the parents live beyond a field where “(a) wild plum tree stood half-naked on a hillock and pointed at the house”, and the house itself has “a bald gable-end pitched among the ash trees.  It was black grey, like ash bark drenched with rain” – are positively Bronte-esque.  I’m talking Emily Bronte here, of course, not Charlotte or Anne.

 

Not all these tales are about ghosts.  Where their Fire is not Quenched and The Finding of the Absolute both speculate on what the after-life might be like.  In one story the after-life is an idealistic one and in the other it’s hideous.  The Flaw in the Crystal is about a female telepath who quietly uses her powers to cure other people of depression and instability.  She’s horrified to discover that the suicidal madness of one of her ‘patients’ is leaking into her own mind – and threatening to infect those other people she’s psychically linked with.  The Flaw in the Crystal is the story I found hardest to get through, mainly because of its length.  It’s 50 pages long but could’ve had the same impact with 20 pages less.  Nonetheless, it contains some excellent writing and the scene where the madness begins to corrupt the heroine’s perceptions of the world around her is worthy of H.P. Lovecraft.  The standard of the prose is considerably higher than Lovecraft’s, though.

 

A sad fact of life – and death – is that when people die, they usually leave unfinished business with those around them.  The supernatural aspects of the stories here allow their protagonists, alive and dead, a second chance to resolve that business.  Subtle rather than frightening, and not hell-bent on wreaking revenge, the worst that can be said about May Sinclair’s phantoms is that they’re a bit unnerving in their determination to sort things out with the living.

 

From wikipedia.org