“Tell Me Strange Things”: Montague Summers, Vampires & The Occult

Montague Summers, circa 1925
Montague Summers, circa 1925

English eccentric and self-described Catholic clergyman Augustus Montague Summers (1880 – 1948) believed in the occult — so much so that his seminal works on witches, werewolves, and vampires have become as much the stuff of ridicule as they are scholarship.

Responsible for the first English translation of the 15th-century witch hunter’s manual, the Malleus Maleficarum (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Malleus-Maleficarum-Montague-Summers-Translation/dp/1891396552), his life’s work, on paper at least, would present him as more of an English professor than an occultist. Yet as well known his studies were of medieval literature and Elizabethan drama to early twentieth-century scholars, his reputation for serious scholarship has been sullied. Despite his work on the origins and intricacies of the Gothic novel — to some, still essential reading — his legacy is one of oddball collectability. Yes this was a man who, despite his religious beliefs, was an acquaintance — a friend even —of occultist and magician Aleister Crowley. He fought openly with famed anthropologist Margaret Alice Murray (over witchcraft as satanic vs. legitimate religion / cult). He was known in early twentieth century circles as a man of faith who saw fictions as having firm foundation in fact. He was also a bit of a kook — dressed in black and often with a cape in a style befitting a priest from an earlier age.  But his work is nonetheless fascinating, if only for the man’s credulity. He believed accused witches tortured by the Inquisition were rightfully punished. He believed vampires — as animated corpses that rose from the grave to torment the living —were real.

The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. 1929.
The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. E.P. Dutton and Company, New York, 1929.

Following in the footsteps of Dom Augustin Calmet (https://www NULL.abebooks NULL.com/book-search/title/treatise-apparitions-spirits-vampires-revenants/author/dom-augustin-calmet/) (who likewise believed in the occult) and Dudley Wright (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Book-Vampires-Dover-Occult/dp/048644998X) (who Summers rails against as “trifling” with his supernatural topics), Summers is best known for his work about vampires. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampire-His-Kith-Kin-Critical/dp/1937002179/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521820470&sr=1-2&keywords=vampire+his+kith+and+kin) (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampire-Europe-Critical-Montague-Summers/dp/1940671450/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521820495&sr=1-2&keywords=the+vampire+in+europe) (1929) investigated the subject and all its ramifications in fantastic detail, presenting a record of folk beliefs about death and vampires that was revolutionary at the time for sheer scope and depth. If one ignores circular reasoning, misreading folklore as fact, and the author’s own cultural and religious biases, there is something at the heart of his study that can’t be ignored: Summers’ own beliefs, however misguided, are infectious and thorough — thus guaranteeing him a seminal place in the annals of vampirology for his sheer dedication to and belief in the subject.

Take note of his tone, for example, and choice of verbs and tense in this passage from The Vampire, His kith and Kin (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampire-His-Kith-Kin-Critical/dp/1937002179/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521820470&sr=1-2&keywords=vampire+his+kith+and+kin):

“The vampire is believed to be one who has devoted himself during his life to the practice of Black Magic, and it is hardly to be supposed that such persons would rest undisturbed, while it is easy to believe that their malevolence had set in action forces which might prove powerful for terror and destruction even when they were in their graves.”

Author Dennis Wheatley in “Gunmen, Gallants and Ghosts,” claims that “Summers inspired him with fear.”  Some suggest the author even used Summers’ physical appearance as a model for Canon Copely-Syle in “To the Devil-a Daughter.” Guillermo de Toro, too, was a fan (as evidenced in an interview with WIRED in 2011 (https://www NULL.wired NULL.com/2011/11/interview-guillermo-del-toro/)); when asked about folklore that influenced his Strain Trilogy, he cites Summers (and Calmet) by name.

One wonders just how many writers and filmmakers have been inspired by this odd little clergyman who so thoroughly researched — and embraced — a supernatural world that to others seemed little more than folk tales and fiction. One could imagine Todd Browning having come across a copy of Kith and Kin while directing Bela Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula. Who knows? Stephen King may even have it on his shelf.

I do.

In the end, we can laugh at Summers, but we can’t deny his sincerity. And if his 1924 introduction to Horace Walpole’s “Castle in Otranto” is any indication of his overall attitude toward things supernatural, there is an undeniable, almost poetic beauty in his view of strange and scary things; he writes

In this world there is mystery, because where there is a secret, beauty can always be hidden. There are miracles here because miracles always accompany the unknown. This desire for beauty, a sense of wonder and mystery is vivid and full of passion in the moods of romantic poets, full of subtle half-shades, and sometimes, brutally, and even somewhat vulgar, in bloody and macabre stories.

Known to often ask his acquaintances to “tell me strange things,” Montague Summers may have worn the cloak of a clergyman, but he had the heart of a Romantic poet — tainted though it may have been with puritanical leanings. The very things that repulsed Summers were too much a temptation not to explore.

In the classic vampire film From Dusk Til Dawn, when a rattled former-minister, played by Harvey Keitel, is surrounded by the undead, he asks: “Has anybody here read a real book about vampires, or are we just remembering what a movie said?” He quickly adds, “I mean a real book.” Actor (and noted special effects artist) Tom Savini (playing a character hilariously named Sex Machine) retorts: “You mean like a Time-Life book?”

Too bad none had read a copy of Summers’ Vampire: His Kith and Kin (http://www NULL.sacred-texts NULL.com/goth/vkk/index NULL.htm). They might have all made it out alive.

NOTE: full-text (http://www NULL.sacred-texts NULL.com/goth/vkk/index NULL.htm) of the The Vampire: His Kith and Kin  (http://www NULL.sacred-texts NULL.com/goth/vkk/index NULL.htm)is available online, but I recommend the critical edition on amazon (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Vampire-His-Kith-Kin-Critical/dp/1937002179/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521820470&sr=1-2&keywords=vampire+his+kith+and+kin) for those truly interested in the writings of this most unusual man.

 

Gonna Die Young: Stiv Bators & the Dead Boys

Among the many American bands that played CBGB in the late seventies and have gone on to take their place in history as pioneers of punk rock, the Dead Boys are often overlooked. With only two albums to their name (one of which the band themselves disliked because of its producer), they were eclipsed not only by CBGB regulars like the Ramones and Television, but by punks across the pond: the Sex Pistols and the Damned, especially, with whom the Dead Boys shared a sound that was more angry and arrogant than most of their contemporaries.

When and where the punk movement began is a matter of great debate among music historians. Critics have applied the term “protopunk” to everything from sixties garage bands and seventies Glam to Detroit’s MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. But most cite the formation of the Ramones in January 1974 — with their first gig, at Performance Studios, on March 30 — as a good a place to start as any. Television took to the stage at CBGB the very next day. And Blondie (billed as Angel and the Snake) would do the same in August — quickly followed by the Ramones themselves. All would become CBGB regulars. But CBGB in the mid 70s was not packed with fans, clamoring for these bands. Most artists were paid in beer, and crowds often numbered little more than the members of the bands themselves, their friends, and roadies. Punk had started, but very few outside of New York and London knew.

Except in Cleveland. Rocket From the Tombs (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Rocket_from_the_Tombs) — formed in 1974  — shared the same DIY ethic with bands from the east, and would oddly enough put Cleveland on the map of punk hotspots. Despite never going into the studio and leaving behind only a handful of poorly recorded live songs, RFTT had talent. And out of their ashes came Pere Ubu (in 1975) — and the Dead Boys (in 1976).

The original Dead Boys line-up included two RFTT alums —  Cheetah Chrome on guitar, and Johnny Blitz, on drums. They would even play a few RFTT songs, including Dead Boys‘ classics “Sonic Reducer” and “Ain’t It Fun.” But finding gigs few and far between in Cleveland, they picked up and moved to New York in July 1976 (with the encouragement of Joey Ramone, coincidentally, who got them their first CBGB gig).

It was at a CBGB gig that the the Dead Boys opened for the Damned — three nights a week. By the time 1977 rolled around, the band had a record deal with Sire.

Dead Boys' Young, Loud and Snotty
Dead Boys’ Young, Loud and Snotty

Released in October 1977 (the same month as the Pistols’ seminal Never Mind the Bollocks), Young Loud and Snotty — arguably a better album — was met with minimal commercial success. That same Fall came support of the Damned on a UK tour, and though “Sonic Reducer” would get crowds cheering (and, in true punk fashion, jeering), few if any Dead Boys‘ work made it to the radio, or the newspapers, for that matter. They always seemed to be in the shadow of The Damned and The Sex Pistols overseas, or the Ramones at home. Despite Cheetah’s Chrome’s blistering guitar work and Bators’ anarchic, nihilistic, almost punchdrunk energy, it would take years before the Dead Boys began to get the credit they deserved. Pearl Jam and Guns and Roses would cover their work in the decades that followed (“Sonic Reducer” and “Ain’t it Fun” respectively). Fans like Henry Rollins would keep their memory alive in interviews and cover versions, too (in an age before YouTube where everyone can live on and on). But there wasn’t enough of a following to keep the band afloat. A breakup was inevitable. Disappointment with the mix of their second album, We Have Come for Your Children, and a grueling U.S. tour that left them, for the most, broke, spelled the end for the band in 1978. A contractually-obligated live album was released, and there were a couple of attempts at reunion. But by 1979, the Dead Boys were essentially, um, dead.

Stiv Bators
Stiv Bators

Stiv Bators would go on to record some solo work and play with other bands. He eventually found some critical and commercial success with ex Damned guitarist Brian James in the punk / new wave / hard rock hybrid that was Lords of the New Church (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/The_Lords_of_the_New_Church).

It was with LOTNC that Bators would continue his on-stage antics, including hanging himself by a microphone cord, tied to a lighting rig. In 1983, the trick went bad and Bators turned blue. He was taken to the hospital and told he had been clinically dead for a few minutes. But Bators shrugged it off and joked: “Once you’ve actually died on stage…, I mean, how do you top that?”

Stiv lived his last years in France. In June 1990, just standing on a sidewalk in Paris, Stiv was hit by a car. He walked away from the accident — checking into, and then later released from a hospital —but he died later in his sleep at home. He was 40 years old.

Brought together by guitarist Cheetah Chrome, the Dead Boys would reunite in 2017 with a guy from a Dead Boys‘ tribute band on vocals. But like the man says, you can’t go home again. CBGB is gone. Punk rock has been absorbed into the mainstream, and John Lydon makes butter commercials (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=7mSE-Iy_tFY).