Category Archives: occult

Beyond the range of the ordinary.

“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, 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 (who likewise believed in the occult) and Dudley Wright (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 (1928) and 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:

“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); 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. They might have all made it out alive.

NOTE: full-text of the The Vampire: His Kith and Kin is available online, but I recommend the critical edition on amazon for those truly interested in the writings of this most unusual man.

 

We Will Explore Hell: W.C. Morrow, Tourist Traps and the Conte Cruel

“Having passed through death… we will explore hell,” says Bishop, a friend of artist Edouard Cucuel, to their mutual guest, a Mr. Thompkins in William Chambers Morrow’s 1899 travelogue Bohemian Paris of To-Day.

Cabaret de L'Enfer
Cabaret de L’Enfer

Leaving the Cabaret du Néant (Nothingness / Death) and about to enter the Cabaret de l’Enfer (Hell) — with its monstrous demon’s mouth of a door — the trio’s evening had long since passed the bizarre, knocking now at the Gates of Hell itself. Or at least a nightclub meant to look like it. Complete with a man at the threshold dressed in red tights and devil’s horns, this was an approximation of hell. A hell on earth, so to speak. And a bit of fun at that.

BOHEMIAN PARIS OF TO-DAY (1899)

Such is a scene in one of the last works of little-known American author W.C. Morrow, a colleague of Ambrose Bierce and early-practitioner / respected author of “the Weird tale.” Working from the notes of Edouard Cucuel, Bohemian of Paris of To-Day was an odd departure for Morrow. With the exception of a pamphlet, Roads around Paso Robles (1904), it was the only travelogue he ever produced.

Bohemian Paris of To-Day (1899)
Bohemian Paris of To-Day (1899)

The book is best known for its chapter on Montmarte, particularly sections showcasing the strange and often salacious hotspots of fin de siècle Paris. Possibly the best account we have of the notorious Cabaret du Néant and Cabaret de l’Enfer — both of which appear to have operated at least through the early 1920s (with the buildings still standing as late as the 1950s) — Morrow’s transcription of Cucuel’s notes provides details that photos (which abound on the web) never could.

DEATH

The Cabaret du Néant, for example, was funereal and thick with the trappings of death — a place where tourists dined off of coffins and were served by undertakers. It was a nightclub that catered to the thrill-seeking tourist who wanted more than the dancing girls of the Moulin Rouge. Its main attraction? An illusion on stage of an attractive girl in an upright coffin. Before the crowd’s eyes, she transformed into a skeleton. A trick with mirrors, most likely.*

Cabaret_du_Netant

HELL

“Enter and be damned,—the Evil One awaits you!” were the words that welcomed the visitor at the next stop along the way.; at the gaping mouth of the Cabaret de l’Enfer, Mephisto himself greeted you. There, at eerily lit red tables, imps served black coffee with cognac, calling it “seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier.”

HEAVEN

The nearby heavenly Cabaret du Ciel completed the trio. It was arguably the most boring of the clubs — the kind Oscar Wilde would have skipped.

Overall, they were clubs any modern-day Goth would love to be caught dead in. Some might call it bad taste. Others, campy fun.

ABOUT MORROW

The travelogue is interesting, but it is also telling. Why did such places interest not only tourists and Parisians alike, but artists like Cucuel and the writer who transcribed his notes, W.C. Morrow?

The Ape, The Idiot and Other People (1896)
The Ape, The Idiot and Other People (1896)

Morrow — a displaced southerner who became a San Franciscan of some fame whose short stories reminded many a critic of the work of Morrow’s friend, Ambrose Bierce — wrote many a serious horror tale. His most famous collection, The Ape, The Idiot and Other People (1896) had established him among known “weird tale” writers of his day. A mere three years later, he had apparently abandoned the short story (for he would publish no other collection) and was here transcribing the notes of an artist wandering about Paris. It makes Bohemian Paris of To-Day stand out as such an odd departure for Morrow — especially considering the subject matter of his most famous work.

“His Unconquerable Enemy” (first published in 1889 and later collected in the aforementioned volume) is unquestionably the best story written by Morrow. And it most certainly belongs to the class of horror fiction often called conte cruel. As opposed to the supernatural weird tale, the conte cruel concerned itself with the horrible in human nature in a world where death by violence seems almost inevitable. In the tale, a western doctor tells the tale of Neranya, a temperamental servant of the Rajah with a penchant for violence who is punished for his frequent offenses by being systematically dismembered with each passing transgression. Finding himself in a personal hell by the end of the story — as nothing more than mere head and torso in a cage — Neranya pulls off one final (if implausible) act of revenge that ends in his falling upon the Rajah and killing him. It is a vicious act in a tale completely devoid of the supernatural, and it belongs to a class of short-story called the conte cruel.

INFLUENCE OF THE CONTE CRUEL

In his seminal study Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) , H. P. Lovecraft observed that “[the Conte Cruel]… is less a part of the weird tradition than a class peculiar to itself… in which the wrenching of the emotions is accomplished through dramatic tantalizations, frustrations, and gruesome physical horrors.”

So how did a writer of such violent and disturbing fiction come to transcribe the travels of an artist through the equivalent of themed restaurants that were the nineteenth-century equivalent of Disney’s Haunted Mansion?

The words of horror master Clive Barker — quoted by Rob Lowman of the Los Angeles Daily News regarding Barker’s “Freakz” live show at Universal Studios in the late 1980s — may provide an answer. For Barker, author of The Books of Blood (1984-1985) and director of Hellraiser (1987), putting together the equivalent of a Halloween Haunted House may seem like a step down. But it may be better seen as a step sideways — from one kind of scare to another.

“There’s something deeply perverse about this,” says Barker of his live show. “If something like this happened to us in real life… we’d reject it wholesale. But if it’s a safe environment, like a movie or a ride or a book then we can put [it] down.”

Or simply leave, like we would a nightclub where skeletons appear on stage and the devil serve us drinks.

Barker continues: “what it is, is a confrontation with death in a very safe environment. If we walk away from the play environment having confronted death… then maybe we are stronger when we confront it in the real world. We all need to do this. We’re all going to die. The years tick on and you get closer to the end, and that’s part of the dynamic of being alive. Knowing we’re on that journey.”

Taking Barker a step further, perhaps a trip to hell helps us explore the dynamic of being damned. If only for an evening.

CONFRONTING DEATH

Morrow shares that journey with us — via both the tourist traps of turn-of-the-century Paris and the gruesome horrors of the conte cruel; as radically different as these writings are, they resonate with Barker’s keen observation that “If we walk away from the play environment having confronted death… then maybe we are stronger when we confront it in the real world.”

Perhaps the camp of the cabarets and the carnage of the contes cruels are not all that incompatible.

Perhaps Morrow saw this too.


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* For a really cool article about the Cabaret du Néant and the use of mirrors with the girl-in-the-coffin-trick click here.

Note that Morrow’s Bohemian Paris of To-Day is also available  from archive.org. There, you will also find the full-text of his collection of Weird Tales The Ape, The Idiot and Other People, including “His Unconquerable Enemy.

For more information about little-known horror authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, read S.T. Joshi’s seminal The Evolution of the the Weird Tale. In fact, get it on amazon.com along with my book!