Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Rise of the Triads - The History of Chinese Secret Societies

According to the Confucian ideal, the Emperor of China rules the ‘Middle Kingdom’ through a mandate conferred by Heaven. The eighteen provinces of China, too spread out to be effectively ruled from a central authority, have typically been administered by outlying representative governments, reporting back to the ‘Son of Heaven’. This widespread network has always been open to abuse and corruption has typically been encountered. Where marginalisation of sub-groups, or draconian provincial measures were enforced, rebels arose in opposition.

At times, omens such as comets, famines or plagues revealed to various individuals that Heaven had withdrawn its favour from the Emperor and they met to form hidden cabals whose goals were ultimately to remove the current dynasty from power. Periodically throughout Chinese history these organisations set in motion revolts which toppled empires, only to be themselves hunted down as bandits by the very administrations they helped to put in place. The earliest of these secret societies was the ‘Red Eyebrows’, identified by the peculiar habit of painting their eyebrows in preparation for battle; but many others followed with equally colourful names such as the ‘Iron Shins’, the ‘Copper Horses’ and the ‘Big Spears’. When not in open revolt against their chosen oppressors, these organisations acted as ‘governments within the government’, meting out local justice and collecting taxes that would otherwise be sent to the capital.

During the Han Dynasty, a secret society arose called the ‘Yellow Turbans’ led by a mystic named Chang Chueh. He brought to the organisation a brand of Taoist magic called t’ai p’ing tao which was used to inspire courage, protect the adherents from harm and heal everything from wounds to illness. Sect followers wore special talismans that were supposedly able to ward off damage in battle, a feature that resurfaced some 1,700 years later during the Boxer Rebellion. A hallmark of this magic was the renunciation of illness-provoking sin, which largely entailed fanatical adherence to the dogma of the sect. Chang Chueh’s stated aim for his society was to overthrow the Han Dynasty, at which point the blue ‘Han’ sky would be replaced by a yellow sky of heavenly approval.

The Yellow Turbans were largely successful in laying the ground for the disintegration of the Han Dynasty (if not in changing the colour of the sky) but lost their gains in the aftermath due to schisms and squabbles. The defeated Han generals went underground to plan their revenge: three of these generals – Liu Pei, Kwan Yu and Chang Fei - escaped persecution and met again later in a peach garden where they swore a blood oath of brotherhood to each other. Liu Pei eventually became Emperor of the Kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period that succeeded the Han Dynasty; Kwan Yu was killed by Liu Pei’s enemies in battle and was eventually deified as the god of loyalty and righteousness; Chang Fei, a great general during the struggles of the Three Kingdoms period but known for his cruel treatment of his troops, was eventually cut down by his own men. This notion of the blood oath – while historically not an element of the Yellow Turban’s worship per se – informed later sects and it became an essential part of the ritual component of such groups thereafter. Interestingly, after this period, Buddhism, which had been introduced into China by this stage, was periodically suppressed and allowed to flourish, forcing Buddhists to join or create their own societies: this led to the introduction of many Buddhist rituals into later hidden sects.

The longest-running secret society in China’s history was the ‘White Lotus Society’, also variously known as the ‘White Lily Society’, the ‘White Yang Society’ and the ‘Incense Smellers’, which arose during the Sung dynasty (960 to 1279). They were connected to other powerful sects of the time such as the ‘Eight Trigrams’ and the ‘Heaven & Earth Society’ and were persecuted for practising a form of Nestorian Christianity which been introduced at the time. This faith teaches a Manichaean belief of opposing forces of Light and Darkness and preaches personal redemption of a kind which prefigured the Gnostics in Europe. Elements of these rituals and beliefs were also infused into sect structures. This secret society was instrumental in overthrowing the succeeding Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279 to 1368) and its leader, Han Shan-tung, would have been the next Emperor except that he and his son died before he could ascend the Dragon Throne. Instead, his fellow rebel, a Buddhist monk named Chu Yuan-chang, became the Hung Wu Emperor and established the Ming (or ‘bright’) dynasty; ironically, the subsequently outlawed White Lotuses were motivated into action once more after 1629 to oust the tyrannical Mings and pave the way for the incoming Manchu dynasty, the Ch’ings.

At some point in the 1600s, a secret society in the southern province of Fukien established itself but unlike other such groups it moved deeper into the woodwork and lent its aid to other organisations with more straightforward political goals. This was the ‘Hung Society’ which adopted aliases (under the pressure of Imperial displeasure) becoming the ‘Heaven & Earth Society’ and finally the ‘Three United Society’ under which name they became known to the West as the ‘Triads’. Similar to the Yakuza in Japan or the Mafia in the US, the Triads were more simply predicated on the organisation of local crime; however, they inevitably lent their support to other hidden groups where it suited their purpose.

Structure of the Triad Societies

The Triads had their own rigid hierarchy, rich in numerological symbolism and strict ritual adherence. New recruits were threatened with all manner of violence if they broke harsh laws of silence and brotherhood and these were generally effective (not only due to the threats but also because of the high levels of ill-feeling against the political enemies of the secret society). The head the society was the Shan Chu and his lieutenant was called the Fu Shan Chu. After these two figures came a roll call of shadowy office-bearers for each lodge of the Society.

Prime among these were the Heung Chu (‘Incense Master’) and the Sin Fung (‘Vanguard’): they were responsible for the ritual and mystical activities of the society, especially the induction of new members and the meting out of punishments. The Cho Hai (‘Messenger’) was responsible for communications between the various lodges of the Triad and also for collecting debts owed to the society. The Hung Kwan (‘Red Pole’) was responsible for martial training and for leading the warriors of the Triad into battle against rival societies, the government, or other enemies. Occasionally there was a Treasurer known as the Cha So. Subordinate lodges to the main society had their own leaders called the Chu Chi and his lieutenant the Fu Chu Chi. The rank-and-file members were called Sze Kau.

Most sinister of all was the shadowy Pak Tsz Sin (‘White Paper Fan’) the often anonymous adviser to the Shan Chu often equated to the consigliere of the Mafia organisations. His role was to advise on tactics and policy for the Triad. The role had a significant mystical and ritual component as White Paper Fans were often promoted to the position of Heung Chu.

Numerology, especially derivations of the number three, were important to the Triads. Each office bearer was known by a numerological reduction of their title. Thus the Shan Chu was known as the ‘489’, or sometimes the ‘21’ (since 4+8+9=21); the Fu Shan Chu, the Heung Chu and the Sin Fung were all of equal rank with the designation ‘438’; the Cho Hai was a ‘432’, the Hung Kwan was a ‘426’ and the Pak Tsz Sin was a ‘415’. The ordinary member was a ‘49’.

Initiation was a drawn-out process which took three days. The prospective new members must first find a sponsor from within the ranks and pay this individual a fee for the introduction. After further payments to the Triad, the Incense Master and the Vanguard undertook extensive checks on the nominees in order to assess their suitability. If all went well, the initiates were dressed in Buddhist robes and brought to a ritual room with symbolic gates on each of the four walls. There they were introduced to the office bearers. They were made to swear an oath to the Triad and also to the god Kwan Yu (transformed by the Triad rituals into the god of secret oaths) and then made to suffer threats of terrible punishments if these oaths were to be foresworn. At some point, blood taken from all prospective members was drunk and scenes of ritual death and injury were performed as object lessons to the newcomers. Afterwards, as new members, the recruits were taught secret hand signals and signs that would reveal their new status to their other associates. In a similar fashion to the Freemasons, a Triad member could reveal his status to others in the know by the way he held his chopsticks or by the way he paid money to a stranger.

Qing agents arresting members at a meeting of their secret society 
The Triads also had their martyrs to inspire and drive their efforts. In 1674 the Ch’ing sent a great army to the province of Fukien to destroy a monastery of monks in the mountains there. They lay siege to the building for several months but were repeatedly driven off by the unarmed martial skills of the monks. Eventually, a traitor on the inside allowed some Imperial agents into the compound disguised as coolies and a rout began. Of the original 128 Shaolin monks, only eighteen escaped; of this remnant, only five escaped eventual capture in the months that followed. These five are referred to as the ‘Five First Ancestors’ in both Triad and kung fu lore and the incident served to underscore the increasing anti-foreigner sentiment of the Triad policies and goals.

The Society of God Worshippers

In 1846 Hung Hsiu-ch’uan, a sickly - most likely, mad - failed student, established his secret band of the ‘Society of God Worshippers’. Largely supported by the local Triads, this group formed the basis of the Taiping Rebellion which wrought havoc across China for the next 15 years. Their battle-cry was “Defeat the Ch’ing; restore the Ming!” and their attempts, while futile in the short term, were to lend impetus to the defeat of the Ch’ing dynasty and the abolishing of the whole Imperial system.

Hung Hsiu-ch’uan cobbled together his manifesto from a poorly remembered set of Christian tutorials provided by Jesuit teachers, mixed in with Taoist mysticism, ancestor worship and concepts borrowed from Buddhism. Organising this system from the shadows was the hidden hand of the Triads, with their own set of rituals and administration which lent substance to the madness of the Taiping’s leader. His later suspected suicide has speculatively been suggested as a convenient removal by the Triad leaders, once his usefulness came to an end.

The Small Swords

Under the aegis of the Taiping Rebellion a local Triad group, the ‘Small Swords’, broke out into open revolt in the city of Shanghai. Less interested in the overthrow of the Manchus and more keen to wrest rising industrial competence and infrastructure from the foreign invaders, the Small Swords’ aims were only tangential to the whole Taiping push. As part of their uprising they occupied the Old City of Shanghai, Nantao. From this nest of tangled alleyways they sallied forth to wreak havoc upon the foreign devils. Within the walls of the old town they held the Chinese populace kidnapped, berating them for working with the foreigners and attempting to weed out ‘collaborators’. As a consequence of this action, the Chinese in the old town, along with the refugees from outlying districts who had fled here to avoid Taiping outrages, rushed in to the foreign enclaves and settled in the streets. Opportunistic taipans and their compradors saw an opportunity: they bought up land in Chapei and other local districts and subdivided their own properties in the settlement areas. These they converted into slums for willing buyers, throwing up street after street of lilong housing to accommodate the displaced crowds – the property boom in Shanghai had begun.

The city’s populace decided to take matters into its own various hands. The Shanghailanders formed themselves into a reservist force - the Shanghai Volunteer Corps (SVC) - and worked with other local organisations to oust the Small Swords from the city environs. Ironically, the French Concession and the International Settlement were assisted by two local tongs – the Green Gang initially and afterwards the Red Gang – to put down the Triad. The Greens used the opportunity to capture the Old City as their new headquarters, across the river from their traditional ‘turf’ of Pootung and thus gained a valuable foothold in the criminal underworld. This co-operation of forces helped pave the way for a tradition of ‘continued assistance for mutual benefit’ right up until the Communist takeover in 1949, a sentiment not lost on the two later leaders of these tongs, ‘Pockmarked’ Huang Jinrong and the sinister ‘Big-eared’ Du Yue-sheng. The SVC itself also gained a cachet of glamour from the incident and was a feature of Settlement life until the mid-20th Century.

The Boxer Rebellion

Perhaps the most well-known of the Chinese secret societies was the group called I Ho Ch’uan (‘Fists of Righteous Harmony’) but known as the ‘Boxers’ to the Westerners. With the, initially, tacit assistance of the Imperial Court, they led an uprising against the ‘foreign devils’ and besieged the Foreign Legations in Peking for a period of 55 days in 1900.

Borrowing heavily from the t’ai p’ing tao of the Yellow Turbans, the Boxers practised sorcery to inspire and protect their troops. Records show instances of new Boxer recruits being shot at point-blank range with pistols, rifles, even cannon and suffering no injuries; battlefields strewn with the Boxer dead would miraculously be cleared by the next morning as the corpses healed their injuries and revived overnight. The fan kuei had their own pedestrian explanations for the way in which these miracles were accomplished but the Chinese people, even the Dowager Empress, were largely impressed and rallied to the Boxer cause.

The Tcho-tcho and the Triads

The degenerate peoples of the Plateaus of Sung and Tsang have a way of insidiously infiltrating ‘normal’ society and nowhere have they been so successful as in China. As early as the 1600s they set about consolidating power in the new Triad societies being formed and over time have directed and codified their beliefs and practises. Note that not much is known definitively about the Triad organisations, given their cell structures and ability to fade into the background; but this is also standard practise for the Tcho-tcho wherever they choose to operate.

The ritual aspects of Triad ‘worship’ and their secretive nature appeal strongly to the Tcho-tcho. The blood-drinking and stylized sacrifices of the Triad ceremonies fit well with their worldview and their profane worship and it wasn’t long before they began to exert a shadowy presence behind the leadership of the Triad organisations. Many a Tcho-tcho master inveigled their way into the position of White Paper Fan and from there to Heung Chu or Sin Fung, codifying worship for their particular organisation.

The impact of these blasphemous cannibals was seen nowhere more clearly than in the various rebellions of the Nineteenth Century. The t’ai p’ing tao of the secret societies became infused with the obscene magicks of the Mythos and such spells as Blight / Bless Crops, Create Zombie, Enchant Lance and Flesh Ward began to be seen on the battlefields against the foreign troops. The foreigners had their own rationales to explain the incongruous events they were witnessing but then the human mind is capable of fooling itself into believing almost anything.

In general however, the Tcho-tcho backing of the secret societies of China did little to consolidate their worship and power. This is because the Tcho-tcho themselves are so factionalised and divided between different deities, modes of worship and internecine fighting that they couldn’t focus their resources strongly enough to make a decisive attack at any stage.

The Hsi Fan

The one exception to this state of affairs was the Hsi Fan. This secret society formed in an ancient lamasery in Tibet close to Yian-Ho and the Plateau of Tsang. Under the aegis of powerful though corrupt lamas, possibly informed by the teachings of the Book of Dzyan and the Ghorl Nigral, their Tcho-tcho emissaries brought them information about the secret cabals of China and they formed their own society. Not much is known of them apart from whispered rumours: it is said that the lowest order of masters within the sect is composed of twelve mystics known as the Order of the White Peacock; the sect is said to command great power in the form of alchemical artefacts; and Dr Fu Manchu is, at this time, one of their most loyal servants.

Triads on the High Seas

Amongst peasant workers on the waterways throughout China it was customary to observe a tradition called chiu chao or ‘brotherhood’; this loosely translated as a sharing of benefits when times were hard and of watching each others’ backs in the face of oppressive authority. A strong family feeling suffused these connexions and entry into the clique became a difficult thing. The tradition was particularly strong in the south of China to where many families and peoples had been displaced due to purges enacted by the central government. These affiliations plied the waterways and oceans of the world, trading, fishing and salvaging. Occasionally, they indulged in a little piracy.

For piracy to be successful, there are several things that are required: an intricate coastline with many river entries and islands; a remoteness from organised central authority or a fractured local government; access to established trade routes; and a jaded bureaucracy able to be bribed. Southern China had all of these things in abundance. Since the 1600s the South China Seas have been host to many pirates, great and small, including Koxinga, a bastard son of the Imperial dynasty and Ching Shih, perhaps the world’s most formidable pirate queen, who commanded 80,000 pirates in her fleet. This region is still plagued with pirates today.

Of interest especially to us however, is the notion of family ties in sea-going communities, particularly in a country where veneration of Nyarlathotep in his form of the Bloated Woman is relatively common. The Cult to this excrescence is known to encourage the Deep Ones in its rites of worship and many pirate communities arose, composed of half-Deep One hybrids dedicated to the deity’s dark worship. Their main temple was said to be located on a ‘lost’ island near Shanghai, hidden by silence and ancient magicks, called Grey Dragon Island...


Wednesday, 30 January 2013

"Hott Hedz" - Part 4

"The first case – marked “1925-1928” – at first would not be opened with the appropriate key. I tried graphite powder on the padlock and, finally, a single-serve tub of salad dressing from the cafeteria, before leaving work to find a hardware store and buy a pair of bolt-cutters: even then, the hinges were so rusted that the lid had to be levered up. I thought at first that Carl had used some variety of arcane packing material to contain the specimens until I realised that the whole case was full of an aggressive type of mould, like dark blue candy-floss, and I abandoned the lab in order to search for some kind of breathing apparatus that could deal with noxious spores.

There were 23 heads in that trunk and they all had to be shorn of their mould and treated with a heavy-duty fungicide; even after that, I kept them sitting, well-ventilated under UV lights, for a month, on the off-chance that they might sprout forth once more. Did I worry that such ferocious pesticides might affect the results? I ask you: did I care? I still have nightmares about contracting dark-blue asbestosis..."

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Review: "Lokis"

MAJEWSKI, Janusz (Dir.), “Lokis. Rekopis profesora Wittembacha” (1970), P.P. Film Polski.

Werewolf films are a dime a dozen; trust the Poles to give us a film about werebears.

There’s lots to like about this movie, especially from a bibliophilic point of view, and also for gamers trying to hook their players into scenarios. Let me just say right from the start that I don’t think that this film is a groundbreaking document; rather it has a series of really nice touches, grounded in a Nineteenth Century sensibility, that demonstrate a masterful grasp of the narrative form. Sadly, what this film doesn’t really do, is deliver any substantial scares.

Firstly, let me start by saying that the music for this movie was composed and conducted by Wojciech Kilar, the man who wrote the music for such films as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), “Death and the Maiden” (1994) and “The Ninth Gate” (1999). Anyone who is aware of his work on those films will understand me when I say that the soundtrack is superb. It delivers emotional peaks as required and lurks unobtrusively in the background while the plot unfolds. An excellent feature!

The story surrounds an academic German priest, Professor Pastor, who journeys into Poland to a remote stately home to examine a translation of theological writings into an obscure dialect. His goal is to write a lexicon of the language in order that missionary work amongst its speakers may be undertaken. He meets an aged Countess and her companions on the train – Julia and her companion, Miss Lemon - as he arrives at the nearby town and gains an open invitation to come and dine at her manor whilst working in the district.

Heading to the estate, he is ear-bashed by the cart driver about many strange local legends, including manifestations of the Devil – in the form of a tailless pike, clad in the “strange clothes” of the Germans – and other horrors. A rainstorm and a broken wheel sees the priest stranded in a small chapel: in the stormy night he hears yelling outside and, opening the church door, inadvertently scares away a drunken peasant by appearing from the dark entryway - damp, tailless and clad after the German fashion!

Eventually, he arrives at the demesne of the young Count Szemiot who, he is told, is suffering from migraines and cannot come to greet him. Instead, a servant gives him a guided tour and sees him safely ensconced in his room. From the window, the priest witnesses the arrival of Szemiot’s mother - who is mad and infirm - along with her private doctor, Froeber. Her distress is painful for him to watch as she is roughly manhandled from her carriage. Later, he meets the doctor at dinner, discovering him to be both indiscreet and in bad temper, longing to be far from what he considers to be a cultural backwater; during the meal, he is summoned to assist his charge who has thrown a fit, and he leaves with poor grace.

After dinner, the priest retires to his room only to see a bearded man hiding in a tree outside his window, obviously spying upon him. Summoning the servants, he is disturbed by their unwillingness to understand his concern, or to do anything about the matter, apart from closing the blinds. As it transpires, the figure in the tree is the young Count who meets the priest next morning over breakfast and apologises for alarming his guest.

The set-up is engrossing and thought-provoking. Filmed in that ‘no-motion’, soft-focus ‘Seventies style that feels distant and detached, we feel an odd disconnect with the events; given that much of what we’ve seen so far is unexplained and peculiar, this heightens our sense that the world is out of joint.

From here we are led deeper into the world of the Count Szemiot and his family: he yearns for the lovely Julia; he expresses weird philosophical points of view regarding the nature of evil and those who embrace it; he is misanthropic and detests animals with equal vehemence, and they respond to him in kind. Doctor Froeber, meanwhile, has descended from careful treatment of the Count’s mother to a regimen of casual torture, his interest in the case long past vaporised: in a moment of complete tactlessness he asks the priest if he thinks that euthanasia is a possible alternative. Left alone in the extensive library, the doctor reveals to Pastor an old sketchbook left behind by a visiting Italian artist: it reveals an incident regarding the Szemiot’s mother during a hunt, where she was dragged away by a bear and mauled. Freed by the shots fired by a drunken groom, she was discovered shortly thereafter to be pregnant and, upon the birth of her son the Count, she tried to break the child’s neck soon after its delivery.

I especially liked the way this backstory was revealed by means of the sketchbook. Whereas another director might have conjured a flashback, this device lent the already strange event an almost mythical quality, like a fairytale. The unfinished sketches and scribbles make the event hazy and unreal, hinting at the proceedings without being heavy-handed. After Professor Pastor sees the pictures, he starts to put two-and-two together – no matter how much it affronts his rational perspective – and then the doctor informs him that the book is kept hidden by the family who don’t wish outsiders to know the details of this accident. Having thus involved the priest in this indiscretion, Froeber almost titters on his way out of the room.

After this, we meet a crazy old witch who talks to a snake and tells the Count that the animals are prepared to name him their king but that the lovely Julia will never be his; Szemiot falls into a lovelorn depression and parades haphazardly on the castle battlements, dangerously close to the edge. Pastor, convinced that Szemiot is simply overthinking things, convinces him to attend a tea party at the Countess’ townhouse, there to declare his love to Julia and let the chips fall as they might. There is a metaphoric dance; some lustful stares and the next thing we know, the two are betrothed. All that remains is a wedding laden with bizarre local traditions (like slapping the bride’s face before she enters the church) and we fast-forward to the wedding night, which is heralded by a bitter fall of snow.

Over a reluctant nightcap with Froeber, the priest sees something fall from the window above; large animal tracks are discovered in the snow below, heading into the woods; a scream comes from the wedding chamber and the bride is discovered bleeding, mauled by some hideous beast. Of the groom there is no sign. Weeks of searching find no trace of him, and so Pastor heads home to Germany. As he boards a train, he sees a row of freshly killed animals lying next to the tracks waiting to be skinned; among them is a large bear. As the whistle shrills and the train departs, he – and also we – are left to ponder the implications.

Like I said, the shocks are light in this film. We almost know from the start what to expect here, but it’s the way that it plays out that is of interest. Although I saw early on where this was going, I was never bored by the unfolding events: this is a case where the manner of the telling is of greater importance than the point of the tale. Obviously, there are no actual scenes of bears rampaging across the countryside, but this only heightens the drama: at no point are we ever truly sure of what’s going on; the one rationale that we have is far-fetched at best and we instinctively try to deny that it is real, despite being inevitably dragged back to it. The early scene with the drunken peasant outside the chapel underscores this: we know that the peasant isn’t encountering the Devil; it’s just a few random particulars that fall together to play upon an old legend. Obviously something similar is going on here with the werebear...isn’t it?

Actually, the most disturbing thing about the film was its treatment of the animals that appear throughout: dogs are whipped, a scruffy gypsy’s bear is made to dance with a prod and the poor witch’s snake was almost throttled. And those animals alongside the train tracks at the end, including an otter, several mink, some wolves and the dead bear? All real; all dead. I guess that’s why filmmakers went to Eastern Europe to film in the ‘70s – no annoying laws about how to treat your animal cast.

This was a tight little story, let down by some overly distracting creative cinematography, distressed animals and far too much dancing (lo-o-o-ng dance sequences); I’m giving it three tentacled horrors.

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Raven

"The Raven" (1845)
Edgar Allan Poe


Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is 168 years old today.

On the 29th of January in 1845, this poem was first enshrined in print. Poe afterwards tried to downplay its prominence in his oeuvre, admitting that the only thing he liked about it was the fact that it gained him exposure and notoriety in Great Britain. That’s a little harsh, I think: the fact that it has a very rigid metre might make some purists wince but nevertheless, it rises above its structure to reveal a powerful narrative and great lyrical dynamism. Try it and see: give it your best Vincent Price impersonation and read it aloud. Like Elizabeth Barret-Browning, it’ll give you the shudders!

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore –
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore –
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door –
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you” - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore –
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door –
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door –
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore –
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door –
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered –
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before –
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore –
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never-nevermore.’”

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore –
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! –
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted –
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore –
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore –
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked upstarting –
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Review: "The Whisperer in Darkness"

Branney, Sean (Dir.), Screenplay by Andrew Leman and Sean Branney, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (2011), The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, Inc./Fungi LLC, USA.

Much excitement the other day – my copy of “Whisperer” arrived!

I almost persuaded myself that I shouldn’t just drop everything and watch it – I figured that my enthusiasm would somehow affect my objectivity and that I should approach the viewing with a sense of detachment. Then I just dived straight in: who was I kidding?

I’m normally not offended by radical changes to a well-known tale, so long as the intentions of the original author are honoured and preserved. Making the jump from the written word to the cinematic experience requires a bit of give-and-take. That being said, I’ve seen some adaptations of Agatha Christie’s stories (even ones with the excellent David Suchet playing Poirot) where all I’ve wanted to do at the end is spit blood. I assume that the producers and directors have all thought “this is a wheezy old yarn; let’s kick it up a notch by making one of these characters Siamese twins! Or maybe have it turn out that someone completely unbelievable did the deed!” Please: just don’t.

Ten minutes into “Whisperer” I began to be a bit anxious: things weren’t unfolding as I expected and it was starting to look a little dire. George Akeley was cluttering up the joint and, if memory serves, he doesn’t even physically appear in the original story. Along with him were a bunch of Miskatonic academics whose names rang no bells; Charles Fort (played with gusto by Andrew Leman) was swanning around; and there was a debate on folklore broadcast live on radio, courtesy of a toothpaste sponsor. On top of all this there was a bunch of knowing references being slipped continuously into the dialogue and, as many people know, this is just the sort of thing that makes my teeth grind.

So I stopped it and went away to ponder.

In retrospect, I was being too harsh. Lovecraft’s tale begins with our protagonist, Albert Wilmarth, having been savaged in the print media over reports of strange things found in the Vermont floodwaters and conducting a desultory correspondence with Henry Akeley. Obviously, this kind of epistolary narrative needs to be massaged in order to fit on the silver screen: creating a scenario, such as a public debate (against Charles Fort, no less!), telescopes all of this information into a single, highly visual event. Bringing Henry’s son George into the action helped replace a lot of parcels and letters to-ing and fro-ing which is what the story offers, and there’s an emotional pay-off from having him disappear later on that was a nice touch. My hat was off to the writers and director for facilitating the story’s progress so far.

There was still the matter of those mystery academics; but more of them later. Back to the film...

I was happy to see Matt Foyer back in the lead role. He has a wonderfully expressive face and is especially good at relaying apprehension and dread. I was idly beginning to count the number of times he got drenched by the inclement Vermont weather but then I just stopped: this guy’s a trouper! Did anybody tell him that he was going to spend two-thirds of the movie drenched to the skin? It would have been an interesting drinking game: ‘scull your drink each time Matt Foyer cops a faceful of rain’; you’d be sh*tfaced in no time flat! Kind of like that game where you drink each time C3PO expresses negativity in “Star Wars”; or when Luke whines; or when the Death Star experiences a change of management. You get the idea.

There was a sequence in Wilmarth’s home that piqued my interest early on: a whole bunch of family photos were lying around, highlighting a wife and daughter that were obviously no longer with us. Hello, I thought: what are they working up to here? It turns out that they were setting up an avuncular relationship between Wilmarth and “Hannah Masterson” the daughter of a soon-to-be-crazy-and-dead Mi Go collaborator. I had some issues with the introduction of this character (again, not from the source material) but it turned out okay: having her around gives Albert’s character a goal and a focus when everything is going pear-shaped at the end of the film, but the interactions between the two of them were choppy and a bit weird. Whilst comforting Hannah in the barn after witnessing her father committing suicide (involving a fairly gratuitous spraying of chocolate sauce all over her), Albert offers to sing to her, as he did when his dead daughter was troubled: Hannah says “God, no” (or similar) and the relief at having dodged the schmaltz is palpable – and not only from the performers’ side of the screen.

This incident is a little bit of Postmodern strangeness that feels out of place. In a ‘50s film, I’m sure they would have made us endure Wilmarth warbling some corny tune; in the ‘30s – the era this film is trying to emulate - perhaps cynicism would have been too high to go there, but you never know. It feels like a gag which the writers enjoyed that should never have made it to the script, let alone the final edit, and I question the thinking behind its inclusion.

I was enormously pleased with the portrayal of Henry Akeley. I was wondering how they would do this – the Mi Go resemble human beings only roughly in terms of general body mass, so passing one off as the other is quite the trick (although there is a faction of readers who think that this is supposed to be Nyarlathotep in disguise, not a Fungus). In a written story, it’s possible to suspend disbelief a fair bit: your mind creates all sorts of cheats and fudges to convince yourself that such a thing is possible; when the task is presented in a visual format, either it is convincing or the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. In this instance, the house was built on solid ground in a wind-proof environment, and quite a bit of glue was to hand.

I really liked the impression which the actors and writers created that, not only was Henry not quite human, but that, at each instance when we see him, he may not have been the same Mi Go in disguise. Barry Lynch’s menacing, shivery performance as the disguised creature(s) admirably contrasts with his performance as the real and anguished Akeley when projected from the brain cylinder through Fungoid technology. I began by thinking that they perhaps should have made the actor’s skin look slightly waxy to create a sense that his face was a mask; that they took the ‘it’s-his-face-skinned-off-his-skull’ option, was inspired. The moment of revelation of this fact is truly disturbing.

And talking of disturbing, the beasties were excellent. I particularly appreciated the presence of Fungoid ‘cybernetics’ in the close-up of the Mi Go on the wing of the biplane: the Fungi are experts in surgical techniques, so it makes sense that they’d mess with themselves as much as they mess with everyone else. The glowing telepathic tentacles were a cute touch too.

The decision to use CGI rather than stop-motion technology is a fraught issue: building an armature in virtual space as opposed to a real one is a question of semantics and rationalisation. I think the issue has to be judged by the results: we get a great sequence of the Fungus on the biplane wing; some other shots – Albert’s encounter with one near the unfolding Gate ritual for instance – are not so hot (and why didn’t that Mi Go tell everyone that Albert was hiding there and have him dealt with? Hmm...).

There is, as I discussed in my review of “The Call of Cthulhu”, a virtue in being cash-strapped: limitations allow creativity to flourish in order to overcome the restrictions. There was a lot less of that in this film; or rather, a lot more money (courtesy of Sandy Petersen, as it happens) . Still, there are a few moments when the thinness of the budget shows through. The interiors of Miskatonic University were a bit unconvincing in that they showed massive ranges of white walls with nothing to show that they were spaces in use. Offices with bare walls, empty desks, unoccupied in-trays and waste-paper baskets seemed somewhat unreal: a set-dresser was needed to mooch through and make the place look lived in. There was far too much attention paid to a turquoise-studded Mexican skull hanging precariously on an otherwise blank wall and the effect was like having a tiny, intricate artwork occupying one corner of an expanse of canvas: wasted effort. Perhaps this object is an HPLHS in-joke? Not sure.

Which brings me to those mysterious academics. ‘Turns out, they all spring from the writers’ days of live-action roleplaying, characters from an adventure set in Miskatonic University. According to the special features disc, the thought went something like this: HPL and his fellow writers used each other and each other’s inventions in their own tales, so, in like fashion, the HPLHS guys thought they’d pull in their own characters for their take on the classic yarn. This is fine as far as it goes, but there was so much ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ going on around this lot that it was just plain irritating: no, I didn’t know who these people were; I had to go to the second disc to sort that out. Introducing characters for the purpose of telling the story is fine; just don’t invest them with so much portentous gravitas that it implies they’re of more relevance than they need to be for the purposes of getting the story told. My sense is that it’s this that causes the first act to drag so much.

(Rant over.)

What’s left? I feel bad coming to the music last, when it should really be the first thing I mention. It’s sublime; it works; it underscores the mood without interfering or getting in your face: the fact that you barely notice it, shows that it’s doing what it needs to do and doing it very well indeed. Whenever I feel the need to rewind a bit of a film and play it with my eyes shut, as I did with this, I know the soundtrack is doing its job.

The titles and models are all just perfect: I’ve been watching a bunch of cinema from this period lately, and these guys just nail this stuff. Of course, like Wolverine, they’re the best there is at what they do.

Final analysis? I like it a lot. Some people will rant about how they changed the ending, but really, they’ve just added a plausible finish after the point where HPL left off: in the story, Wilmarth just gets the Hell out of Dodge; the HPLHS guys pick up the pen and write in a suitably creepy resolution, with danger and madness for all (whilst simultaneously ignoring a slew of writing by Brian Lumley). There are some hiccups and misreads along the way, some questionable decisions; overall though, it’s a solid performance and I look forward to their next outing.

Three-and-a-half tentacled horrors.