Summer reading? Poe of course.

There is something about oppressive hear, when the air thickens and the sunlight bears down like a thing with mass. Movement slows and becomes more deliberate. Hurry is pointless.

Books match themselves to weather. In the past, these conditions have drawn me to Southern Gothic, to Tennessee Williams or Carson McCullers. This time, I have found myself opening a collection of stories by Edgar Allen Poe, splendidly and grotesquely illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Tradition connects tales of horror with winter firesides - Dickens’s Christmas stories, MR James reading to students in his study - but Poe suggests miasma and corruption.

The language is rich and dense and sentences have enough clauses to excite a Tory education minister. The sumptuous prose needs to be waded through rather than skimmed. His narrators are introspective, sometimes morbid, sometimes obsessed. The stories are fatalistic. Though many are just a few pages long, the pace is measured. Why rush when doom is the destination? We readers are there as the confidantes of the narrators, as they slowly unburden themselves.

We sense the fate of the writer of the MS. Found in a Bottle. We know the Imp of the Perverse will have its way. We know too that Morella will exact her strange revenge and that the melancholy House of Usher will fall. These aren’t Roald Dahl-style tales of the unexpected. It’s inevitable that “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death” will hold “illimitable dominion over all”.

Roderick Usher suffers from “a morbid acuteness of the senses”. William Wilson has inherited the family’s “imaginative and excitable temperament” rendering him “self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a pray to the most ungovernable passions”. Eleonora “had been made perfect in loveliness only to die” and dwells upon the fact.

The melancholy house of Usher

Just occasionally, the fate we expect to be visited on the protagonist isn’t. Not all deceased lovers are as relentless as Morella. Poe even permits some humour, pulling the rug from under our feet in The Premature Burial.

The film version of The Premature Burial takes the route one might have expected the written tale to take. It is part of the estimable, Roger Corman cycle of the 1960s. Studio-bound, with saturated colour and almost all starring Vincent Price, these catch the spirit of Poe, the heavy, artificial atmosphere, the fatalism, the feeling of being trapped

A lot of other Poe-based movies bear little of no resemblance to the source material. One oddity worth tracking down is Spirits of the Dead, an extraordinary, messy film with segments directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Fellini and a cast including Jane and Peter Fonda in Metzengerstein, Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon in William Wilson and Terrence Stamp in Toby Dammit (Never Bet the Devil Your Head).

Robert Bloch – best known as the author of Psycho – wrote a splendid little story that imaginatively mirrored The Fall of the House of Usher, using snatches of description and dialogue. It’s called The Man Who Collected Poe and a version of it showed up in another anthology film called Torture Garden, with Peter Cushing as the collector.

The spirit of Poe lives on or as Bela Lugosi’s obsessed Dr Vollin had it in The Raven, “Poe! You are avenged!”.

Poe! You are avenged!

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Visit to the house of Karloff

It’s a sultry summer night, 23 July 1977. After much pleading, the thirteen year old me is allowed to stay up for the first half of BBC2’s double bill of horror. The film is Son of Frankenstein and I am sucked in by the heavy gothic atmosphere, the weird, expressionistic sets and lighting, the haunting music played by Bela Lugosi’s Ygor and finally, Boris Karloff’s monster.

Now it’s 19 May 2017 and I’ve just had a portion of chips in curry sauce, from Fish Master at 36 Forest Hill Road in East Dulwich. That just happens to be the house in which Karloff was born on 23 November 1887. Inside is a large photo of Karloff and his daughter Sara, signed by Sara. For the record, the chips were chunky and the sauce sufficiently curryish and they would have been particularly good after a couple of pints.

Today was a mini-pilgrimage that I’ve been meaning to make for years. Back in the 70s, the Christmas before my first late night horror, I was given a copy of Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which I still have. I had actually read most of the book before Christmas Day, having discovered where my mum had hidden it but it was still a thrill to receive it. The cover is a montage of pictures of Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Peter Cushing, Fredric March and Christopher Lee but at the centre was Karloff.

Birthplace of Boris Karloff. Sea Master on Forest Hill Road, East Dulwich

He started out in life as William Henry Pratt and didn’t stay long in Dulwich, the family moving to Enfield. In 1909 he went to Canada where he mixed acting with any other jobs he could get. Ten hard years later he was in Hollywood, where he gradually started to establish himself as a character actor. He struggled on for years until in he was in his mid forties. As Karloff told it, “I was sitting in the commissary at Universal, having lunch and looking rather well turned out, I thought, when a man sent a note over to my table, asking if I’d like to audition for the part of a monster.” The movie was Frankenstein and the flat headed, stiff limbed, bolt-necked monster that became an icon was Karloff, with help from Jack Pierce, the make up artist.

This was the start of Karloff the Uncanny’s purple patch and in quick succession he appeared in The Old Dark House, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Mummy, The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein and The Raven. In the late 30s and early forties, he became the archetypal mad scientist in a string of interchangeable movies. His doctors were kindly, had a daughter and meant well until their experiments led them astray. Later that decade, Val Lewton’s unit at RKO gave him some deep and complex roles in Isle of the Dead, Bedlam and The Body Snatcher. After that, the films trailed off into mediocrity apart from a few late flourishes. There are some terrific films among the above but these are my top three.

The Mummy (1932) plays as much as a romance as a horror. Karloff is only glimpsed in bandages, spending most of the film as the wizened and mysterious Ardath Bey, whose ancient love has been reincarnated at the film’s heroine. The film is pretty much a rerun of the previous year’s Dracula but less stagey and Karloff is more sympathetic than Lugosi’s Count.

The Black Cat (1934) was first and best pairing of Karloff and Bela. In a key scene, Karloff’s suave and decidedly nasty architect Hjalmar Poelzig plays chess with Lugosi’s traumatised former comrade, Vitus Werdegast. The setting is Poelzig’s superb house, built on the ruins of a fort where thousands had died. It mixes various modernist styles. Here Le Corbusier meets Constructivism meets Art Deco. Karloff looks fantastic too.

Targets (1968) saw an old, tired Karloff play an old, tired, horror movie star called Byron Orlok. This was Peter Bogdanovich’s first film and he is full of promise, never to quite be fulfilled. Karloff’s very personal story makes up one strand of the film. The second follows a murderous sniper and gradually the strands coverge converge. This wasn’t Boris Karloff’s last film but makes a fitting epitaph.

Photo of Boris karloff and daughter in Sea Master Fish & Chips shop in East Dulwich

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South Circular Episode 2. Cares of the World

After we published the first part of my South Circular ramble, from West Dulwich to Woolwich, we received a message from a reader in China (we have a reader in China!). He said he’d forwarded the link to a friend who had lived in Dulwich for forty years and the friend’s response was “should have turned left out of the station”.

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Book Review: Humanity in the shadow of brutality

The Cultural Revolution was a particularly brutal period in Chinese history. In 1966, Chairman Mao unleashed a torrent of violence and ignorance that aimed to purge the country of revisionists, the bourgeois, the traditional and the capitalist. Add a comment

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The Durrells in Dulwich? (Part 1)

I have recently received several links to press relating to the forthcoming series of ‘The Durrells’, the ITV adaptation of the books of Gerald Durrell. The success of the first series has guaranteed a second and, I am told, a third.  Add a comment

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Margo as friend and grandmother (Part 2)

Yesterday would have been Margo Durrell's birthday. There was always a little bit of confusion about her age because she used to chisel off a year here and there. She died in 2007 at an agreed age of 87. So to commemorate her 97th birthday I have written this short piece. Add a comment

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Mangoes, farts & the facts of climate change

You’re on a plane, heading off on holiday. You stand in line, holding a pair of two litre milk cartons, filled with aviation fuel. As the queue moves forward, you ready yourself, and when you get to the front you have one second to empty them and then race to the back of the line to refill. That’s the rate at which a 747 or Airbus gets through fuel. “I was amazed to hear that” nine year old Katla told me afterwards. Add a comment

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Some notes on David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain

Ever since art school I have found the most famous works of Hockney, such as the Hollywood portraits and interiors, very sterile, soulless, lacking any vital life element. He has an architects knack for precision, producing works that are void of spirit.  Add a comment

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Walking the South Circular. Episode 1

There’s a cheerful patch of daffodils to provide a little relief from the dirty spray thrown up by cars and lorries. A cold, wet Wednesday morning, the fag end of rush hour; the perfect time to walk the South Circular, or at least a chunk of it. My starting point is West Dulwich station. I head east. At a bus stop, three bags of dog poo and a tennis ball prepare for a square dance or maybe a four-way stand off. There’s traffic noise rather than Ennio Morricone. Yards later, the beautiful Dulwich College hoves into site, wooded hill behind.

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