Lore Report: “The Crucible” (Episode 187)

[Hansel and Gretel] is a story we tell to teach an important lesson: be careful around strangers. And as our world has more and more become a dangerous place to live, it’s a fairy tale that still seems to hold onto a lot of its relevance. Of course, most of us were raised to see the fantasy in a story like that–a witch who murders, cooks, and eats other people. Honestly, how much more fictional could we get? But it never hurts to push back against assumptions and ask the difficult question: what if it could actually happen?

In these review posts, I sometimes critique Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast for getting bogged down at the narrative’s outset in historical contextualization. This episode takes matters in the opposite direction, jumping right into an extended story, which can be a bit disorienting at first. Mahnke details the life and crimes of Leonarda Cianciulli, a figure who would become notorious in Italy in the mid-20th Century. Cursed by her own mother (who disapproved of her daughter’s choice of husband), Leonarda seeks out a Romany fortune teller who warns her that she will outlive her children; a second fortune teller a few years later asserts that Leonarda is fated for either prison or a mental asylum. Circumstances (I won’t spoil the whole story here) lead Leonarda into occult practice herself, and then to mass murder (what she did with the corpses afterwards is the true jaw-dropper). But was Leonarda the powerful witch she claimed to be, or simply criminally insane? Pondering the woman’s self-mythologizing, Mahnke eventually steps back to address the purpose of fairy tales and folkloric story. Still, one might question whether this justifies the extensive focus on such a singular case. Overall, “The Crucible” is a fast moving episode, but falls short of a bewitching listening experience.

 

Dracula Extrapolated: Dracula A.D. 1972

Exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

 

What if Hammer modernized its Gothicism and restaged Dracula in contemporary (i.e. early 1970s) London?

As signaled by its title, Dracula A.D. 1972 (the seventh installment in Hammer Film Productions’ Dracula series) presents an update of the studio’s typically Victorian-age vampire Gothics. The film opens in the year 1872 with a terrific action sequence, as Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) battles Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) atop a runaway carriage and then successfully stakes the vampire with a spoke from a broken wagon wheel. From here, though, the plot fast forwards a full century, centering on the revels of a circle of modern London hipsters (which includes Lawrence’s great-grand-daughter Jessica). The group’s leader is an enigmatic figure named Johnny Alucard, who talks his “friends” into finding new kicks by taking part in a black mass conducted inside a condemned church. Alucard, though, has an ulterior motive: he is a disciple of Dracula (think Renfield by way of Alex in A Clockwork Orange) seeking to resurrect the Count from his nearby grave.

When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1898, it dramatized a host of then-current anxieties (such as the rise of the New Woman and the foreign invasion of the imperial homeland). Similarly, Dracula A.D. 1972 exhibits a concern with the contemporary youth culture in all its perceived lawlessness and licentiousness. The hipster characters here check all the negative boxes, indulging in alcohol and drugs, sex and Satanic ritual. Anticipating slasher morality, however, the film has the sinners pay for their transgressions. Johnny Alucard preys on the group, by delivering its most nubile members up to Dracula’s lusty thirst and (after being vamped as a reward for his service) also by directly tapping necks himself. Jessica represents the prize catch: she is to be brought to Dracula, who will then turn her into his undead bride as he carries out his vendetta against the Van Helsing family.

But aside from employing a generational-enmity storyline, the film takes scant advantage of its updated time period. Dracula (who remains on the grounds of the ruined church while Alucard roams around London) never interacts with the modern urban setting and thus exhibits zero culture shock after awakening in a new century. The Count is the consummate (deadly) stranger, but doesn’t struggle to adjust to a strange land; he appears right at home in the Gothic ruins he haunts. The opportunity to offer something more than another redux of the vampiric seduction plot is disappointingly wasted.

While featuring some strong scenes (particularly those in which Jessica’s occult-scholar grandfather Lorrimer Van Helsing [Cushing] squares off against Alucard and Dracula), the film forms one of the weaker Hammer swings at Stoker adaptation. It was not well received by critics, but did leave quite a mark on some notable creators. Tim Burton has professed his love of the film (he splices a clip of it into Frankenweenie; also, the rousing carriage-top battle that opens the Hammer film gets a scenic echo in Sleepy Hollow). And writer Kim Newman has numbered Dracula A.D. 1972 among his favorite vampire films. So it’s no surprise that “Johnny Alucard” plays a key role in Newman’s Anno Dracula series of novels–an exemplary effort of Dracula Extrapolation that I will certainly make the subject of a future post.

 

Nothing More Brilliant Than

Something More Than Night by Kim Newman (Titan Books, 2021)

Kim Newman (who, in his Anno Dracula series, has proven himself an absolute master of horror/dark fantasy narratives with an alternate-history twist) begins here with an ingenious premise: Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff (real name: Billy Pratt) aren’t just Hollywood contemporaries but compadres whose relationship traces back to their days as English public school students. They have both been marked by the ultimate femme fatale (a vampiric muse known as Ariadne), and they repeatedly have been embroiled in cases involving occult-tinged crimes. At the start of Something More Than Night (a title drawn from Chandler’s introduction to his collection Trouble is My Business), the mystery writer and the horror actor are confronted with the bizarre death of their friend, private investigator Joh Devlin (who has served as an inspiration for Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character). The crime scene conspicuously restages the murder (suicide?) of the chauffeur Owen Taylor in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. An equally unsubtle calling card has been left for Karloff, in the form of his own annotated script (for his recent film The Man They Could Not Hang) found in the glove compartment of Devlin’s crashed car.

As if all this weren’t compelling enough, the narrative thrusts Chandler and Karloff into an investigation that opens up onto citywide corruption and supernatural conspiracy. The case points them toward an immortality-obsessed studio mogul whose mad experiments with electricity make Victor Frankenstein’s labwork seem prosaic by comparison. Newman’s plot, which time jumps back and forth as the various pieces of the uncanny puzzle are laid out, grabs hold of the reader with the strength of a Universal monster; it bullets along even as it delves into elaborate set-pieces. There are breathtaking escapes (e.g. from sanitarium imprisonment), faceoffs with oddball gunmen and clowning killers, explorations of a spooky, deathtrap-rigged mansion. And copious literary and cinematic references all along the way. As in the best hardboiled detective novels, the joy is in the journey rather than the destination, the thrill ride throughout more than some clever, climactic solving of a mystery.

Newman (whose “Afterword and Acknowledgements” section reveals an incredible amount of research for the novel) presents a masterclass in world-building here. He brings late-30’s Los Angeles to life in exquisite detail, ranging from movie studio to mean street to police precinct and beyond. The verisimilitude achieved by the invoking of Chandler’s and Karloff’s biography and bibliography/filmography makes the wildly fantastic aspects of the tale seem grounded in bedrock reality. Something more than the immediate scene can be sensed as well, as the narrative connects to a broader historical context. The America depicted here is a country still recovering from the first World War, and teetering on the precipice of the next one.

Of the book’s many strengths, its greatest has to be its voice. Chandler provides first-person narration, an account worthy of his soon-to-be-famous detective hero. For instance, he flashes an abundance of sardonic wit: “The Princesses Royal would scorn the place as too ostentatiously luxurious. A hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of smudge hung on the [hospital room’s] walls, mostly right side up. Paris in the rain. Sunsets at sea. A clown with no eyes. You’d want to recover just to get away from the art.” And, of course, there’s no shortage of slangy, hyperbolic similes: “The woman’s wet silk dress was transparent, stuck like cellophane wrapping a bon-bon. Her figure would draw the eye in dry church clothes. Now she looked like the centrepiece of a Spicy Mystery cover, tethered to a hooded fiend’s altar.” That being said, Newman is interested in more than mere hardboiled pastiche. The use of Chandler as narrator affords interesting insight into that author’s creative mindset, and allows introspective assessment of personal flaws (such as Chandler’s struggle with alcoholism). No doubt this novel overflows with stylistic verve, but substance is never submerged.

Although some of the characters (Ariadne, Stephen Swift) connect to other Newman works, the novel functions perfectly as a standalone. At the same time, there appears to be ample space for a sequel, and that is a most welcome prospect. Anyone who isn’t already a fan of Chandler or Karloff will be after reading this amazingly imaginative effort featuring the pair of 20th Century cultural icons. A monster of a mashup of the hardboiled-detective and horror genres, Something More Than Night shines in Noirvember–or at any other time of year.