To the London Mithraeum last Friday. Removed from its previous post-war incongruous location at ground level in the heart of the City of London, and unavailable for some years, it has now been returned to its subterranean location on the banks of the now-sunken river Walbrook. An excellent piece about the reconstruction here. I've visited many Mithraea over the years, some of the most atmospheric in Rome, at San Clemente for example - see here.
I think the newly-restored London temple has managed to conjure up the numinous atmosphere of the all-male congregation chanting in Latin before the stone image (now in the Museum of London) of the tauroctony very effectively with sensitive lighting, sound and smoke. There is also a very well-displayed array of finds from the site of the new Bloomberg building, beneath which the temple now sits. The guide told me that 80% of what you see if original, the side walls are much higher than I remember them from the original and make it more impressive. Entry is free, but you have to book in advance - see here.
It looks as if I shall be quite busy with talks and walks this year. Some are still being finalised, but so far we have:
Thursday 15 February talk The Underground Folklore of England Kensington Central Library Lecture Theatre starts 6.30pm
See here for booking. Only about 20 FREE tickets left from 200. This subject is always popular.
Thursday 15 March talk Aleister Crowley: Life and Legacy Kensington Central Library Lecture Theatre starts 6.30pm. Gary Lachman will also be talking at this event.
See here for booking. This FREE event is also doing well, about half the places have been booked.
Thursday 5 April talk Tunnels Under Holborn Camden Local History Society Burgh House, Hampstead starts 7.30pm. See here for booking. Non-members pay £1 entry.
Also in April there will probably be one of my general Subterranean City talks about underground London. To be confirmed.
Late May a walk with Bill Redwood and others about William Burroughs to coincide with an exhibition about him in central London. To be confirmed
June a walk about Whistler in Chelsea visiting some of his haunts and locations. To be confirmed.
There will probably be more later in the year.
I shall have copies of my books for sale at all events, usually with considerable discounts. Obviously there are more available at the talks as it's uncomfortable carrying large numbers of hardback books around on a walk.
An article in the latest issue of Hastings Town (No.121 February 2018) on the film The Fall of the House of Usher made on location in Hastings between March 1946 and November 1947. The director was Ivan Barnett and the article provides some useful background information on the director, provided by his son Adrian, a professional photographer.
When I contacted Adrian during the writing of the first edition of Netherwood his father was still alive but very frail (he died in 2013), and my questions about the film were conveyed to him by his son. The results form one of the sections of the Netherwood book. They also very kindly allowed me to use a number of stills from the film as illustrations. Many scenes were filmed inside Netherwood (the House of Usher was the exterior of the guesthouse) and most famously Aleister Crowley was present during the filming, as the director confirmed to me (he found the Great Beast 'very polite...pleasant and amenable'). The article repeats the claim that one of his paintings appears in the film, although I've been unable to confirm this, having viewed the film a couple of times. An unusual monument in Beauport Park - now a caravan park - appears in the film and can still be found in situ.
While the article is interesting, there is no indication that the author has read, or even heard of, Netherwood: Last Resort of Aleister Crowley (which does not really surprise me, as it's had no coverage locally, despite some efforts on my part, such as contacting the local newspaper - to no avail - this is definitely one of the plus points of social media and the internet, which enable these traditional gatekeepers to be bypassed). Coincidentally, I watched the Roger Corman Vincent Price 1960 version of Usher last night, before I knew about the recent article.
Also there's no mention that the author of the article has actually seen the film, which I initially saw on a DVD purchased online that had probably been burned on someone's laptop. More recently the BFI has restored the film and it can be viewed on cheap subscription on their website here. It looks considerably better, clearer and sharper, and I enjoyed it much more on second viewing in its enhanced format ( a missing reel has been restored to make the running time 70 minutes, rather than the 60 of the DVD). Vernon Symonds, proprietor of Netherwood and amateur actor (Crowley ended up at Netherwood following an enquiry from one of Symonds' fellow actors) also appears in the film. Recently critical opinion has been brought to bear on it - Jonathan Rigby in the latest edition of his excellent English Gothic (2015) - my British horror film bible - declares it 'a compellingly weird and atmospheric one-off.' Worth checking out.
To see in the New Year I've been watching a selection of Italian horror and 'giallo' films - the latter graphically violent films from the early 1970s - the genre name originating from the yellow covers of the crime novels by which they were influenced. Interestingly, from my point of view, I couldn't help noticing that they many of them shared the theme of a mural which held an important clue to the plot of the film.
One of the best was Lisa and the Devil directed by Mario Bava (I've seen a number of his films this year, including the seminal Black Sunday available in a Blu Ray release with I Vampyri, the first Italian post-war horror - the genre had been banned under Mussolini). Elke Sommer plays a tourist on a tour of Toledo who gets separated from her group in the narrow canyon-like streets of the medieval town and enters a dreamscape of murder orchestrated by the Devil, played with relish by Telly Savalas (Sommer's character had seen his image previously in a local mural). Trivia fans may care to note that he sucks a lollipop throughout the film, but this is prior to its iconic appearance in Kojak; apparently he and Bava came up with the idea and he later added it as an essential prop to his television portrayal of the New York cop that secured him worldwide fame. Another point of personal interest is that Bava was keen on the old secret tunnel, especially one that leads to a large ornate fireplace. Beautifully photographed and dripping in atmosphere, Lisa and the Devil is an oneiric, almost surreal experience but was not a financial success.
Producer Alfredo Leone had invested a lot of money and decided that he didn't want to lose it and so recalled Elke Sommer and filmed new sequences for which the old film would provide flashbacks. Cashing in (literally) on the recent massive success and notoriety of William Friedken's The Exorcist, this remodelled movie was entitled House of Exorcism and on the recent Blu Ray release you have the opportunity to view it together with Lisa and the Devil. I found it a nonsensical desecration of a beautiful film - Bava's name does not appear as the director - I watched it while listening to Leone's commentary - he still thinks he did a good job. It's nevertheless worth watching, as some scenes from Lisa and the Devil are more graphic and sexually explicit and had obviously been cut from the original film.
I've now also seen Bava's 1996 Operazione Paura (cornily retitled in English Kill, Baby ... Kill), generally reckoned to be his best and I think I preferred it a little over Lisa and the Devil. It's a great film, again beautifully photographed, with a real dreamlike quality and surreal scenes such as the hero endlessly running on a loop through the same room until he catches up with himself. The sinister young girl at the centre of the mystery was actually played by a boy (how useful these DVD extras are) in a blond wig, an early example of the 'creepy/killer kid' found in many later horror films. Coincidentally, the camp boyfriend of one of the central characters in Profondo Rosso was played by a young woman. The simple but highly effective use of a bouncing ball to signal her presence was used by a number of subsequent filmmakers (including Fellini) as one of the extra films on the Blu Ray demonstrates, although they left out the one that sticks most clearly in my mind - a scene in Marathon Man, where a ball bounces menacingly down a dark arcade.
Another gialli, The House with Laughing Windows had a great sense of atmosphere which builds up as a restorer uncovers more than he intended to when working on a mural of the martyrdom of St Sebastian in the local church of an isolated Italian town. Follow the link to an absorbing online essay on the iconography of St Sebastian, whose arrow-ridden body is ubiquitous in Italian churches and galleries - while in Turin a few years ago I saw an exhibition solely devoted to Guido Reni's depiction of the martyred saint.
Profondo Rosso, which I also saw, was filmed in Turin and I remember walking along the magnificent arcades that feature heavily in the film and standing by the large reclining river statue that is the central focus of a beautifully framed scene. The location is the Piazza CLN, built during the Fascist period, see here. The scenes here also clearly reference Edward Hopper's famous painting Nighthawks. The Blu Ray release has a very absorbing film studies essay on Profondo Rosso and other Argento gialli such as The Bird With Crystal Plumage. Obviously the incidental music provided by Italian prog rockers Goblin contributes greatly to the film.
Incidentally, I also watched the recent Blu Ray release of Friedkin's Sorcerer. Brilliantly filmed with some memorable moments - the lunar landscape at the end of the journey for example and the laborious progress of a truck laden with nitro glycerine over a rickety bridge. But it took a long time to get to the central story - the introductions of the four major male characters were fascinating but could have made separate films in themselves. Crucially, I didn't actually find it that tense - I recall seeing Wages of Fear (on which it's based) on television decades ago as a boy and feeling really tense, which I didn't with this film. The score by Tangerine Dream is recommended. The DVD has an interview with an entertaining Friedkin by Nicolas Winding Refn which is definitely worth seeing - Friedkin emphasises that films are dreams, a point brilliantly demonstrated by Mario Bava.
Sales of Netherwood have been encouraging and a number of people have also been buying Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore & Fact from The Big Cartel, so it's been a good year for Accumulator Press. I now have to consider what I might publish (or republish) next year.
In the meantime, some of the books I've read over the last few weeks.
L T C Rolt Sleep No More A collection of ghost stories by a writer better known for his books on railways and engineering. He is very good on description and atmosphere: the best example here is Hawley Bank Foundry, where he makes industrial archaeology suitably creepy. More on him here.
Peter Biskind Easy Riders, Raging Bulls Hugely entertaining page-turner, about the glory years of 1970s Hollywood when the likes of Coppola, Spielberg, Scorcese, Altman and Lucas were creating their early (and mostly best) work. Rarely have I read a book containing so many disclaimers (x has no recollection that this conversation took place, y says this incident never happened), hardly surprising given the extreme behaviour on display. Interesting to read at a time of revelations of more recent Hollywood outrages, however despite the obligatory 1970s culture of patriarchy and sexism, a lot of the abuse detailed here is drug-related. Also good on chronicling the careers of lesser-known filmmakers (these days) such as Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby. Much space is devoted to William (Exorcist) Friedkin who does not emerge well. His legendary flop of the time Sorcerer has just been rereleased - now being treated as a lost masterpiece - I've bought it - review to follow at some point.
Marjorie Worthington The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (1966, Spurl reprint 2017)
Very interesting biography/autobiography of the journalist and writer William Seabrook, written by one of his wives, who travelled extensively and wrote a best-selling book about Haiti and Voodoo called The Magic Island (1929) which is supposed to have introduced the word 'zombie' (so popular in recent years) into western vocabulary.
An alcoholic who spent periods trying to dry out, he was obsessed with strange and intense S&M endurance rituals - not described in any detail in the book, but information can be found online - some of which were said to have been photographed by Man Ray. A bizarre photograph from one of these sessions adorns the cover. Also fascinated by occultism, he spent a short while in the company of Aleister Crowley (who was very uncomplimentary about him in his diaries when he learned of his suicide in 1945 - see Netherwood). In many ways Seabrook seems to have lived a life similar to Crowley's - he is notorious for having indulged in cannibalism (AC was once described in a headline as 'A Cannibal At Large') although not in the circumstances described in his book Jungle Ways. For more see here. A graphic novel biography was also published this year, but Seabrook may still be a suitable subject for a lengthier biographical study. A photo of Seabrook above.
There's a very positive review of the new edition of Netherwood at Magonia here. Magonia is also one of my list of links opposite.
The Magickal Battle of Hastings was very successful (despite zero coverage in local media - the Curse of Crowley?) and a similar event may be arranged in Hastings over the coming months. Some stimulating chats with audience members in the breaks. For example check out Paul Green's work here and Gareth E Rees here.
Netherwood is also available from the estimable Borough Wines in Robertson Street, Hastings. See here. On 22nd I saw a 'secret' gig by Faust in the basement - they run a very interesting events programme.
I also met some very stimulating people after the Salon on Thursday. Celine Hispiche created a musical called Tiger Woman, about Betty May, another Crowley acolyte, which I haven't seen, but hope to one day. Also Dr Matthew Green, who has also written about coffee houses and the history of London, here and here.
NB Owing to a clash of events at Burgh House, my talk on 'Tunnels Under Holborn' has had to be rescheduled to Thursday 5th April 2018.
The evening before the Magickal Battle of Hastings I shall be in London, appearing at the 50th Salon in the City amongst a host of London writers, artists and commentators. 10 of us have 5 minutes each to talk about a character associated with London. My subject is most likely to be Aleister Crowley and his associations with London. See here, although the date should be 30th November.
Talks for 2018 have recently been arranged. A talk on Underground Folklore in Great Britain at Kensington Central Library, an excellent lecture theatre, on Thursday 15th February and another - subject to be confirmed - on Thursday 15th March. More details to follow.
The FREE talk on underground folklore can be booked now on Eventbrite here.
Also a talk on Tunnels Under Holborn for Camden History Society at Burgh House, Hampstead, a very nice venue. See here.
There are still places for the free talk on the Folklore of London at Kensington Library on Monday 23rd at which copies of Netherwood will be on sale. Here
Here's some of the feedback received so far from customers who bought the new edition:
'Netherwood is a beautiful production with the end-papers giving a feel of post-war Britain. The envelope with the brochures is a fine addition and the rich assortment of photos is tempting. I can't wait to read it.'
'It really is beautifully researched and written.'
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact