Closer, gentle reader. Spring creeps upon us… for the last week or so, little clusters of ghoulishness have lurked among the buds. It started with a trip to Crystal Palace, with its fascinating remnants of the collection, and little folk tales of ghost trains entombed beneath the ruins. As I type this it is Easter Saturday, which seems an appropriate point to pause to detail some of these things passed… (“on the second day of the long weekend off, they rose late again and had boiled eggs, for it was raining heavily”). Here is a taxonomy of some of the roots clutching from out of the stony rubbish… Let us feel what ghastly backdraughts might waft from the tombs as rocks are rolled away…
[FX: Vincent Price-ish echoey laughter]
… Our story begins on an ordinary Monday, not long ago. In the morning press, my eye fell upon an intriguing history, relating the strange case of The Gorbals Vampire. In 1954, I read, a mania had fallen upon hundreds of children. The tartan tinies, convinced that an iron-fanged fiend stalked their midst, descended upon Glasgow’s Southern Necropolis bearing stakes, mallets and crucifixes, massing mob-handed to seek the villainous vampire and do for him…
[Breezy reportage voiceover] The reaction from some parents seems to have been in the no-nonsense Glaswegian mode:
“Mammie, ah seen a vampire!”
“Aye, you’ll be seeing stars now – get tae bed!” [FX: Clout!] But, the story suggested, a more sinisterer agenda was then furthered. The panic escalated, as they are so wont, to draw in the alleged malign influence of American comics, such as the legendary Tales from the Crypt, on the youth of Scotland. This led to the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955, which forbade
the sale of magazines and comics portraying “incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature” to minors.
Let us leave aside for a moment the superb-because-true allegorical undertones – well, overtones, in fact – of the tale of a giant vampire with iron teeth stealing the kids of Glasgow, the beast dwelling in the Necropolis by the ironworks, the admixture of sensational American pulp turning the weans’ impressionable heids… Let us turn from this part of our little peep into the sepulchre and move on. For, gentle reader, Mr Sanderson’s recountage of that little episode bade me cast back my mind, back… back to adventures from my own childhood…
[80s synth version of 'Lollipop' under montage sequence]
About four or five of us, of varying ages between six and 10, were out playing in the woods at the end of our road. The Woods, as they were more properly known, were (then) a horseshoe of old trees, yews, oaks and the like, planted around an older quarry. There was a fence closing off the top ends of the cliffs from above, but it was open at the bottom end, and well-frequented by dog walkers, drinkers and of course gangs of feral youths (known as kids playing about at that time).
Here is the view from google’s roving spy vehicle:
Doesn’t it look laden with aeons of Lovecraftian dread? Anyway, between those verdant boughs were craggy slopes, so plentiful climbing of both rock and branch to do. Many happy hours were whiled away running about, playing Block 1-2-3 (like Hide and Seek, with extra running and counting), doing the tree walk (a line of about twenty-odd trees you could go from one end to the other without touching the ground on), hacking through nettles with sticks, throwing crab apples, digging up clay and chucking it about, trying to start fires, finding abandoned dirty magazines, etc, etc.
Yet. At the top end of The Woods were a particularly sinister set of early-Edwardian era buildings. I had a dim awareness they were something to do with the Council (now known to be Planning and Highways). At that time, Councillors were notoriously sinister and corrupt, always selling off land housing priceless pirate treasures, building bypasses through fields and kidnapping children, which of course I recognise now as naive, the product of a vivid imagination exacerbated by over-exposure to The Goonies, the Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys. Real Councillors would never do any of that kind of thing.
However, back then it seemed perfectly plausible that in the basement of the building, behind the cobwebbed window on a door that had not been opened in years, there lay a body. Oh yes, a body – dessicated and horrid – watched over by a mad caretaker – who would happily permanently close any prying eyes with some sort of caretakering implement…
… so there we were, hacking through the trees with sticks, doing the nettle walk, chucking crab apples, but all the time gravitating inexorably to the little concrete staircase that led to this portal of the damned…
…eventually, we clustered at the head of the stairs, bunched, and crept as one body down the short flight. Darren (I think) was oldest and shushed us as we whispered, lest we disturb the caretaker. Down we edged, sneaking with our backs against the wall to avoid being seen. (There were actually only about three stairs, so please imagine those two sentences as a tightly-edited movie sequence, making it look like we’re on some endless Dante-esque descent before the pull-back and reveal, five lads of descending size in a Madness Nutty Train, moving incredibly slowly a distance of about two feet).
The window was slightly above head height, and our excitement reached a fever pitch as Darren stood on tiptoes… he peered around for a few seconds, acclimatising to the gloom… we drew in closer… “There’s something there,’ he said. An intake of breath in unison, held. “What, what’s there?” “It’s…”
Our hearts thudded in our throats. Our suspicions were true. A body. The corpse of the last unfortunate to come prying in this dungeon of despair, of the Good Councillor who tried to oppose…
In films like The Goonies, young kids often yell in unison before running around pell-mell at warp speed. So we yelled and ran, bundling up the stairs pushing each other, stumbling and maybe already laughing with excitement as we bombed back through The Woods, down the hill, burst out and along the road.
Of course there was no body, and the caretaker was probably just a paedophile, not a murderer. The story of the collective van Helsing delusion in Glasgow was the same, albeit on an industrial scale. Kids make up their own little scary narratives from what they’ve acquired culturally, creative sparks coming from these little clouds of artistic endeavour and locale to galvanise, bring forth new life, etc, etc.
Nipping it in the bud, such mini-adventures also often followed in short order by the Authorities, trying to stop people thinking and restore ORDER. Legislating the imagination… after comics in 1950s Scotland, our tale from The Woods took place in the early 1980s, northern England, a time when video had just started its ascendancy. Against a backdrop of the threat of the The Bomb, in the UK we had the ‘Video Nasty’ scare. One could suggest this was maybe an atavistic response to baffling new technological paradigms, and there’s probably some sort of thesis somewhere in extending that notion to discuss the massive surge of irrationalism, religious crisis and fear, dark matter, accompanying the birth and rapid growth of the interweb, if one could possibly be arsed thinking it made any sort of difference talking about that kind of thing.
Ahem. Returning to the body in the cellar, there was no banning of comics arguably directly linked to the Corpse in the Cellar Adventure, but it was definitely round about that mid-1980s time when other people’s unconscious horrors were bubbling up and being silenced,or at least attemptedly so. It’s funny how these cultural riptides and countercurrents happen (‘Ha ha!’ – Newton). There’s a big thing about vampires, werewolves, ghosts and the like going on… which is probably something to do with a climate of fear, nukes or terrorists. ‘In the day’, we had the cereal Weetabix giving away these glow-in-the-dark Scary Stickers when I was younger. Banned, of course – political correctness gone mad, I ask you, although looking back, pictures of radioactive spiders were actually pretty terrifying artefacts to shake out into your breakfast bowl (I know you don’t shake out Weetabix, but bear with me). Thanks to the powerful magic of the internet, I was able to revisit them via this ace blog, The Cobwebbed Room, which linked to them from the also ace Peter Gray cartoons and comics blog.
Oh, oh, OH! And look at this: The ill-fated yet magnificent comic SCREAM!, available to read online! SCREAM! was awesome, after the Beano one of the big influences on me having an abiding interest in comics as culturally significant media. Not banned, I think SCREAM! was cancelled for economic reasons… more images in the crack’d mirror…
Have I a point in these reflections, dear reader? Probably only that sometimes we maybe (I definitely) do not tend to immediately think “scientifically” about things. Humans in general do seem to respond to representations a lot more easily, the primal chill of vampires some kind of reaffirmation of blood and flesh reality against airy and sometimes incomprehensible theories of dialectical materialism, ‘market forces’, or Large Hadron Collisional physics… where perhaps we don’t know what will happen, but let’s bang the little rocks together anyway and see what manifests. Then chuck crab apples at it.
Maybe it all goes together in some way, severed hand in glove, stitched on to homunculus by scientists using string. On which lurching to its feet note, there we go. The Easter weekend passes, my brain ceases to spark my fingers into pushing buttons, and we turn expectantly to witness whatever stumbles from the cave… Perhaps an animated feature: “Wes Craven presents Mary Shelley’s ‘Schrodinger’s Messiah’.”
It’s actually quite sunny out now.
[Hands burst through the plaster and clutch me as I rise from the chair]