The Wrightson stuff

 

© Bernie Wrightson / Christopher Enterprises

 

My last entry on this blog was epically long – well, I was epically pissed off when I wrote it – so I will keep this entry brief.  Last month saw the death of the great American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson.  He grew up during the 1950s and as a kid, inevitably, was exposed to the artwork in the pulpy and notoriously gruesome horror titles published at the time by EC Comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear.  In particular, Wrightson was influenced by the eldritch visuals of legendary EC Comics artist Graham Ingels, who rather than sign his own name on his work preferred to leave the nom de plume ‘Ghastly’.

 

You could see the Ingels / EC Comics influence on Wrightson’s most famous comic-book creation – Swamp Thing, drawn by him, written by Len Wein and unveiled in 1971.  The titular thing was once a scientist working in a laboratory in the middle of a swamp, initially called Alex Olsen although later the character was reworked as Alec Holland.  Thanks to human skulduggery, Olsen / Holland sees his lab destroyed and he gets contaminated with mysterious chemicals that cause him to be fused with the plant-life of the surrounding bayou.  The resulting mutant creature resembles a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a piece of broccoli.  Needless to say, as a weird kid who spent his time in the classroom drawing monsters on the covers of his school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better – rather than listening to the teacher, I thought Swamp Thing was the bees’ knees.

 

© DC Comics

© DC Comics

 

As well as working for DC Comics and Warren Publishing, Wrightson was involved in literary and cinematic projects.  In 1976, for example, he produced the Edgar Allan Poe Portfolio, a series of beautiful prints depicting moments in some of Poe’s most famous stories.  The prints capture the atmosphere of Poe’s work whilst giving the characters a comic-book intensity – if they haven’t already exploded into action, you get the impression that they’re simmering with fear or passion and are about to explode.  Wrightson also collaborated with Stephen King.  In 1983 he drew the comic-book adaptation of the King-scripted, George Romero-directed movie Creepshow, which was very obviously influenced by the old EC Comics too.  And he provided illustrations for King’s books Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), the ‘complete and uncut edition’ of The Stand (1990) and Wolves of the Calla (2003).

 

As the co-creator of Swamp Thing, a story informed by the ‘lonely, misunderstood monster’ theme that makes Mary Shelley’s landmark gothic novel Frankenstein (1818) so powerful, it was fitting that Bernie Wrightson should contribute fifty illustrations to a new edition of Frankenstein published in 1983.  These were clearly a labour of love – Wrightson said later that he’d spent seven years drawing them in his unpaid spare time.  Unsurprising, his work on the 1983 Frankenstein is often cited as his finest hour.  You only have to look at this picture of Frankenstein’s laboratory to see how the level of detail is mind-blowing.

 

© Plume (Penguin Books)

 

Food, glorious food — too glorious for the likes of you

 

From www.youtube.com

 

We looked around the interior of the restaurant and my father uttered some depressing but predictable words: “Oh-oh.  This looks too good for the likes of us.”

 

This happened a few years back while my Dad and I were taking a holiday in Malta.  We’d spent the morning wandering around the island’s charming old former capital, Mdina.  Having taken in the place’s splendid Norman and Baroque architecture, and admired its medieval fortifications, and experienced its uncanny atmosphere – which made you feel like you’d stepped through a time-warp and arrived a half-dozen centuries back in the past – we were ready for lunch.  The restaurant we went into had dungeon-like stone walls, thick white candles burning inside glass globes, and hulking antiquated chairs and tables.  It also had a crew of immaculately-clad waiters and several groups of well-heeled customers who, seated stiffly around their tables, clearly knew the correct order with which to lift their cutlery.  It may have been our imaginations but both staff and clientele seemed to view our entry with suspicion.

 

I felt like saying to my Dad that the chic diners present were probably all investment bankers and hedge-fund managers: folk who’d made piles of imaginary money by moving numbers on a computer screen, representing sums of more imaginary money, from one virtual account of yet-more imaginary money, to another virtual account of yet-more-again imaginary money.  Whereas my Dad owned a sheep farm in the Scottish Borders that, though it was relatively small, at least had substance.  It had acres of ground.  It constituted physical wealth.  No doubt it was much more valuable than the pretend-wealth commanded by the creeps here.

 

As for myself – well, I wasn’t rich physically or imaginarily, but I was at least rich in experience.  I’d met a few great writers in my time, plus a couple of important diplomats, and politicians, and even the odd lord or two.  So socially, I could hold my own at a table alongside some of these pseuds, even if I wasn’t sure which bloody knife, fork or spoon to wield first.

 

Too good for the likes of us?  No way, José.

 

But confronted by those withering stares and intimidated by that posh ambience, we decided not to risk it.  We retreated from the restaurant.  Indeed, we retreated from Mdina.  We eventually ended up at St Julian’s, where we had a belated feed of fish and chips in some British-themed pub.  (I don’t remember its name, but it was probably called something like The Dog’s Bollocks.)

 

Yes, food is a paradox.  It’s a basic human need – at regular intervals, all human beings, whether billionaires or paupers, have to shovel it into their faces, chew it, masticate over it, swallow it, digest it, process it as bodily fuel and eventually crap it out of their rear ends.  But, as humans, we’ve managed over the millennia to refine and embellish the eating experience.  We’ve devised a vast array of dishes so that our food is served to us in a near-infinite variety of combinations and configurations.  We’ve devised a vast parallel inventory of drinks – juices, ales, wines, liquors – with which to wash those dishes down.  And we’ve come to understand that the more congenial the surroundings, and the more congenial the company, the better that food goes down too.

 

And yet, in the age of capitalism, we’ve turned food culture into something else – something elitist, exclusive and joyless.  Oh, and extremely costly.  Aided and abetted by our sycophantic snake-eating-its-own-tail media, we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that you can’t really say you’ve eaten unless you’ve done so in an airlessly-formal and cripplingly-expensive restaurant that’s made the top ten in some Mammon-worshipping glossy society magazine or on some achingly-hip where-to-be-seen website.

 

In fact, the top restaurants don’t seem like restaurants anymore.   They seem more like temples where the worshippers – the paying mugs – come to prostrate themselves whilst the temple-priests weave webs of intimidating ritual around them and then demand exorbitant donations to the temple-funds.  Temples that above their entrances bear the arcane and fearsome symbols of the gods, or as they’re called in the food-snob world, Michelin stars.  Temples whose high priests did their vocations in the mysterious and mystical schools of TV celebrity chef-dom: Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Antony Worrall Thompson, Marcus Wareing et al.  Guys of whom Keith Floyd (the only decent TV celebrity chef in history) once said, “I’d like to napalm the lot of them.”

 

From www.thepoke.co.uk

 

Maybe I’m uncultured but by far and away the most rewarding dining experiences I’ve had weren’t in places like those.  No, I’ve actually had the time of my life devouring cheap, hale-and-hearty Nipponese grub in back-street izaka-yas, ramen-yas and yakitori-yas in Japan; or guzzling kitfo and tebs in the unassuming Ethiopian eateries of Addis Ababa (or more recently, along London’s Caledonian Road); or munching seafood in some ramshackle establishment on the shores of County Suffolk, or the Carthage / La Goulette stretch of the Tunisian coast, or the beach at Unawatuna in southern Sri Lanka; or indeed, just sitting on a pavement and stuffing my face with street-food in India, Thailand or Myanmar.

 

But I must be wrong.  I can’t have eaten properly.  Not according to the media hyperbole that surrounds the culinary scene in, say, London – where you can part with a small (or big) fortune in order to sample the grilled fillets of Scottish beef, Cumbrian rose veal and suckling pig available at Le Gavroche in Mayfair (a venue masterminded by ‘the highly adored Roux family’ according to www.therichest.com); or the poached Scottish lobster tail and foie gras at Gordon Ramsay’s flagship joint in Chelsea; or the French haute cuisine at Alain Ducasse in the Dorchester Hotel in Piccadilly, which has a super-pricy Table Lumière where you can dine in front of thousands of dangling, glittering fibre-optics (designed, no doubt, to take your mind off the banality of your fellow-diners’ conversation).

 

But I have to say, because I have a sick mind, that my favourite-sounding posh restaurant in London is the Coq D’Argent in the Bank area, which was once owned by Terence Conran.  Not only is a popular spot for City-of-London high-fliers to eat, but it’s also a popular spot for them to kill themselves.  The last time I checked, no fewer than five people had thrown themselves off its seventh-floor terrace since 2007.  I’m not sure whether that was before or after they’d seen the bill.

 

A few weeks ago, the posh-restaurant scene in another great city, New York, was subjected to the forensic stare of British food critic Tanya Gold in an article appearing in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine.  Gold described how she went to four of the Big Apple’s most prestigious eateries and found them, well, wanting.

 

(c) The Times

 

Now I’m generally not a fan of British food critics.  Indeed, my idea of hell would probably be to spend eternity eating in an infernal branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken with A.A. Gill on one side of me and Michael Winner on the other.  (Come to think of it, Winner, who passed away in 2013, is probably there just now – barking abuse at the infernal KFC staff-members whilst waiting for me and A.A. Gill to turn up and occupy the two empty seats next to him.)  And at its worst, Gold’s writing is bitchy, show-offish and juvenile.  For example: “the food is so overtended and overdressed I am amazed it has not developed the ability to scream in your face, walk off by itself, and sulk in its room.”  Comparing food-items to spoilt adolescents?  That’s a bit… adolescent.

 

But when she hits the target, which is more often than not, Gold is wonderful.  She goes to Per Se at New York’s Columbus Circle and observes that the food “is not designed to be eaten…  It is designed to make your business rival claw his eyes out.”  The restaurant has “six kinds of table salt and two exquisite lumps of butter, one shaped like a miniature beehive and the other like a quenelle”, and her bill comes to $798.06 – half of which Gold confesses to vomiting up later in her hotel.  She visits Eleven Madison Park in the Metropolitan Life North Building and marvels at the pretentious vulgarity of what’s on the menu.  “One tiny dish of salmon, black rye and pickled cucumber is, we are told, ‘inspired by immigrants’.”  Among other things, there’s a turnip course, and “a golden, inflated pig’s bladder in a dish.”  That sets her back $640.02.

 

In Brooklyn, she goes to Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, where “the novelty is the relative poverty of other people and their odd ways: emerge from Chef’s Table and fall over a homeless person.”  Inside, she disrupts the sombre atmosphere by trying to negotiate her way around another diner’s legs, cutting herself on a mysterious piece of metal sticking from the wall and screaming in pain.  She pays $425.29 for the privilege.  Finally, she eats in Masa, next door to Per Se, which is “the most famous sushi bar in New York” but “looks like a shed, or a ghostly corner of Walmart… two tiny rooms with beige walls and pale floors, some foliage, some rocks, a dismal pool.”  She and her companion fork out $1706.26.

 

http://harpers.org/archive/2015/09/a-goose-in-a-dress/

 

Gold’s article has not gone down well in the food-loving quarters of New York.  One writer on the site www.eater.com lambasted her for “5000 words of baseless complaint, poor personal behaviour blamed on others, and easily avoidable factual errors, all wrapped in words and phrases playing dress-up as jokes.  For writing this thoughtless to appear in a magazine of this profile is a tragedy.”

 

Elsewhere, a comment-poster pointed out that, back in Blighty, Gold once wrote an article calling on Oxford and Cambridge Universities to admit more students who’d been educated at state schools.  Well, if she said that, she must be a commie.   And as we know, commies hate America.  And the American way.  And the American dream – which is, if you work hard enough, one day you’ll be rewarded by having enough money to be able to go to a snotty restaurant that insults your intelligence with turnips and pig’s bladders and then fleeces you with a ginormous bill.

 

However, I believe that there’s one person at least in America who’d sympathise with Gold and might even applaud her demolition of New York’s finest eateries.  That person is the ultra-prolific writer Stephen King, who in 1995 penned a short story called Lunch at the Gotham Café.  The story, which eventually found its way into the 2002 collection Everything’s Eventual, thumbs its nose at posh restaurants – and in particular at one of the worst features of posh restaurants, the supposedly welcoming but intimidatingly officious maitre d’.

 

From scarymotherfucker.wordpress.com 

 

In King’s story, a man facing divorce agrees to have lunch with his soon-to-be ex-wife and her lawyer at the restaurant of the title.  Not only does the lunch go badly because the couple immediately start quarrelling, but also because in the middle of it the maitre d’ turns homicidally insane.  He hacks the lawyer to death with a chef’s knife and then pursues the hero and his wife / ex-wife through the restaurant and kitchen.  Why the maitre d’ so spectacularly flips his lid isn’t explained – though you get the impression that, working in a place like that, it’s not a surprise that he does.

 

Stephen King, incidentally, has said of himself: “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”  Good old Steve!  No literary snob, he.  And, I suspect, no food snob either.

 

(c) The Huffington Post

 

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

 

Horror before it got Panned

 

(c) Pan Books

 

Michael Gove, England’s prissy and uptight Education Minister, would be disappointed in me.  When I was a lad, my usual reading material was not the likes of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which a few months back Gove said he wanted to see the nation’s youth reading.  Rather, when I was 11, 12 or 13, I commonly had my nose stuck in works by such authors as Sven Hassell, James Herbert and Guy N. Smith, meaning that I didn’t become conversant in the effects of the Great Reform Act of 1832 or in the gradual diminution of the ideals of Dorothea Brooke, which Eliot wrote about in her great 1871-1872 masterpiece.

 

I did, however, end up learning a lot about German Panzer divisions wreaking bloody havoc on the Russian front during World War II, about chemical weapons leaking out of military laboratories in the form of thick swirling fogs and driving all who come in contact with them murderously insane, and about giant mutant crabs going on the rampage and eating people.  Knowing such things prepared me a lot for adult life.

 

I also spent a lot of time reading, in the form of tatty paperbacks that in the school playground and on the school bus were constantly borrowed, read, returned, borrowed again and read again, a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories.  The first of this series had been published in 1959, under the editorship of the strikingly named Herbert Van Thal, a literary agent, publisher and author whom the critic John Agate had once likened to ‘a sleek, well-groomed dormouse’.  The first few volumes of horror stories that Van Thal edited for Pan Books consisted largely of classical stories from well-known horror writers and more ‘mainstream’ (whatever that means) writers who’d dabbled in the genre; and their quality was generally held to be high.

 

By the late 1960s, however, Van Thal was filling each new compilation with more and more stories from new writers, many of whom were taking advantage of a more permissive era to see what they could get away with in terms of violence, gore and general unpleasantness.  Serious horror writers and fans became quite sniffy about the books.  Ramsay Campbell, Britain’s most acclaimed living horror writer, has said: “I did like the first one when I was 13 years old, but I thought the series became increasingly illiterate and disgusting and meritless.”

 

When my schoolmates and I started reading them in the 1970s, the latest editions of The Pan Book of Horror Stories were low in literary quality but high in disgusting-ness – which suited our jaded, beastly little minds fine.  I’m still psychologically scarred by Colin Graham’s The Best Teacher in the ninth collection, which was about a psychopath who decides to write a manual for aspiring horror writers, instructing them in what dismemberment, disembowelment and various acts of torture really look and sound like.  To this end, he kidnaps a horror writer and starts dismembering, disembowelling and torturing him whilst recording everything with a camera and tape recorder.  Anyone who thinks that the horror sub-genre of ‘torture-porn’ began with Eli Roth’s movie Hostel in 2005 really ought to take a nosey through Graham’s grubby epic from a few decades earlier.

 

To be fair, the later Pan collections did feature then-up-and-coming, now-well-regarded writers like Tanith Lee, Christopher Fowler and, ahem, Ian McEwan.  However, by the 1980s (and after Van Thal’s own death), the series was clearly on its last legs.  It resorted to ransacking Stephen King’s famous anthology Nightshift and reprinting stories like The Graveyard Shift, The Mangler and The Lawnmower Man – which was unwise, since anybody inclined to read the Pan horror series had probably read Nightshift already.  The final volume, the thirtieth, had a very limited print run and if you ever lay your hands on a copy it’s probably worth a lot as a collector’s item.

 

A few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop I discovered a copy of The First Pan Book of Horror Stories.  This was unlikely to be sought by book collectors, alas – the copy looked like something had chewed, swallowed, partly-digested and regurgitated it.  At least it was still readable, though, and I got a chance to sample the original instalment in this famous, or infamous series.  I read it curious to know if it deserved the praise Ramsay Campbell had given it and also curious to see how different it was from the more disreputable stuff that came later.

 

My first impression was that the stories in this collection weren’t how I’d have organised them.  I’ve heard writers whose works were printed in the later Pan books grumble about Van Thal’s abilities as an editor, and it’s hard to see why stories as similar as Hester Holland’s The Library and Flavia Richardson’s Behind the Yellow Door (both about hapless young women who are hired as private secretaries by older, plainly-batty women and who meet gruesome fates), or Oscar Cook’s His Beautiful Hands and George Fielding Eliot’s The Copper Bowl (both about exotic, grotesque revenges and tortures inflicted by East Asian people – at least one of them is, by today’s standards, racist) should end up in the same book.  In fact, Eliot’s story follows immediately after Cook’s, thanks to Van Thal’s strange policy of arranging the stories in alphabetical order by their authors’ surnames.

 

What also struck me was how stories I’d read elsewhere in my youth and greatly enjoyed seem now, sadly, a bit duff.  I loved Hazel Heald’s The Horror in the Museum when I read it as a 13-year-old – Heald, incidentally, wrote it under the tutelage of H.P. Lovecraft, whose influence is obvious in the ornate prose-style – but a modern rereading suggests that Heald (and Lovecraft) could’ve cut the story’s length by about 20 pages without losing any of its plot points.

 

Meanwhile, Bram Stoker’s The Squaw, another tale I had fond memories of, seems much poorer now thanks to it having as a character an American tourist called Elias P. Hutchinson.  If Hutchinson was representative of what Stoker believed all Americans sounded like, spewing toe-curling things like ‘I du declare’ and ‘I say, ma’am’ and ‘this ole galloot’ and ‘durned critter’, I can only say that Stoker needed to go out and do some research.  Still, despite failings that nowadays are glaringly visible, both The Horror in the Museum and The Squaw benefit from having cracking denouements.

 

The Horror in the Museum is one of the few stories in the collection that contains a monster (and what a monster it is – “globular torso… bubble-like suggestion of a head… three fishy eyes… foot-long proboscis… bulging gills… monstrous capillation of asp-like suckers… six sinuous limbs with their black paws and crab-like claws…”).  Apart from The Kill by Colonel Peter Fleming, a werewolf story penned by none other than Ian Fleming’s older brother, the rest of the stories are fairly monster-free, depending on psychological terrors for their impact.  Indeed, C.S. Forester’s The Physiology of Fear is a horror story in an unusually literal sense.  It deals with a particularly horrific episode in human history, the Nazi concentration camps.  It also has as a character a German scientist engaged in research, with the Third Reich’s support and with prisoners from the camps as his guinea pigs, into the emotion of horror as it arises in the human psyche.  And the story’s ending isn’t conventionally horrific.  Instead, the scientist is ensnared in an ironic and satisfying twist that’s worthy of Roald Dahl.

 

Also not a horror story in any conventional sense is Muriel Spark’s The Portobello Road.  It qualifies as a ghost story, but most of all it’s a mediation on the nature of friendship as it survives, or doesn’t survive, from childhood into adulthood.  This being Spark – the woman whose most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie, was simultaneously a prim middle-class Edinburgh schoolmistress and a fascist – the story has a bitter, vinegary flavour.  None of its characters are particularly pleasant and none seem to deserve long-term friendship.  In fact, the one character who tries to keep those friendships alive is the one who, ultimately, commits the story’s single, shocking act of violence.

 

Meanwhile, I reacted to the sight of Jack Finney’s Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket as if an old and long-lost friend had suddenly hoven into view.  Not that I’d encountered this particular story before, but it conjured up fond memories of American writers like Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Ray Russell, Shirley Jackson and Charles Beaumont, who in the 1950s seemed to keep their rents paid by pumping out short stories for the likes of Playboy magazine and TV scripts for the likes of The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff’s Thriller.  In admirably direct and diamond-hard prose, their tales would detail the world turning suddenly and inexplicably weird for citizens of post-war conformist America, for both dutiful suburban wives in nipped-in-at-the-waist housedresses and office-bound men in grey-flannel suits.

 

Finney (most famous as the author of the sci-fi horror novel The Body Snatchers, which shows conformity taken to a nightmarish extreme and which has been filmed at different times by Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman, Abel Ferraro and Oliver Hirshbiegel) starts his story thus: “At the little living room table Tom Benecke rolled two sheets of flimsy and a heavier top sheet, carbon paper sandwiched between them, into his portable.”  A half-dozen pages later, events have lured Benecke away from his portable typewriter and embroiled him in a vertiginous life-or-death struggle just outside his apartment window.  It calls to mind the Stephen King short story The Ledge, another one that appeared in his collection Nightshift.  I doubt if the similarity between the two stories is a coincidence, since King is a big admirer of work from this era of American story-telling.

 

Also deserving mention are Oh Mirror, Mirror, a claustrophobic item penned by the great Nigel Kneale, Raspberry Jam, Angus Wilson’s poisonous take on the snobbery of old people who no longer have anything to be snobbish about, and Serenade for Baboons, a colonial horror by Noel Langley.  Inevitably, a couple of clunkers find their way into the book too.  Anthony Vercoe’s Flies wouldn’t be such a bad story if the writer hadn’t swamped his prose with exclamation marks – indeed, I can’t remember encountering so many of the damned things in ten pages of fiction before and the result is almost unreadable.  Meanwhile, The House of Horror is one of a series of short stories that American pulp writer Seabury Quinn wrote about a psychic investigator called Jules de Grandin.  De Grandin is French, seemingly intended as a supernatural version of Hercule Poirot.  Unfortunately Quinn gives him a patois that is as cringe-inducing as Elias P. Hutchinson’s Americanisms in The Squaw: “Sang du diable…!  Behold what is there, my friend…  Parbleu, he was caduo – mad as a hatter, this one, or I am much mistaken!”

 

On the whole, though, I found The First Pan Book of Horror Stories a rewarding read.  I now look forward to tracking down the other, earlier instalments in the series – those ones that came out before Herbert Van Thal decided to crank up the levels of nasty, schlocky stuff, in order to satisfy the blood-crazed savages amongst his reading public.  Blood-crazed savages such as my twelve-year-old self.

 

And by the way, here’s a website dedicated to this memorable (sometimes for the wrong reasons) line of books: http://www.panbookofhorrorstories.co.uk/.