Saturday, 26 September 2020

Hobo Signs...

In the aftermath of the Civil War in America, many displaced people – some the victims of war; some freed slaves, or those seeking freedom - took to the roads looking for places to live, to lay low, or to start new lives. Much of the movement of these displaced people coincided with the expansion of railroad networks and the growth of industry in the post-War era; the homeless wanderers made their way across the country by means of hopping illegally onto railcars and “riding the rails” to wherever the trains were headed. As a group, this itinerant underclass became known as “Hobos” and they were a feature of the American landscape right up until the end of the 1930s.

In line with the pioneering literature of the country – from dime store cowboy novels to the loftier heights of such works as Huckleberry Finn – the lifestyle of the hobos became suffused with romantic notions of freedom and of being footloose – not tied down by the tiresome exigencies of a tedious workaday lifestyle. Hobos took on the sheen and romance of the European Troubadours, becoming a gypsy race free to roam and do as they pleased, without having to answer to any higher power. Of course, there was the downside to this lifestyle, in that it was based on a certain level of illegality – flouting carriage laws as they pertained to rail networks, and some petty larceny in order to avoid starvation – and a degree of danger – of being run over by a train, or of being beaten up by zealous law enforcement agents – but this was considered a fair exchange for being free to do as one chose.

In cinematic circles, this romantic sheen was all too clear - performers such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields, along with many others, created characters and made films glorifying the gleefully shambolic lifestyle of the hobo. In fact, the down-at-heel, hardscrabble homeless clown became an entertainment staple informing all kinds of media representation from blockbuster movies to Disney comics.

Hobos were said to have their own codes of governance – particular rail networks were jealously guarded by hobo factions who prevented others from using them – and to have their own argot in order to speak without the uninitiated overhearing what was being discussed. Such notions have been the tradition in many underworld societies across the planet from the earliest times and finding these associations within hobo lore is hardly surprising. Along with a vocabulary of jargonistic terms however, hobos are almost unique in having their own written form of secret communication, a system called “Hobo Signs”.

These signs were a collection of symbols that could be quickly and easily scrawled in chalk, or scratched, on walls, telegraph poles, fences and other community features so as to impart information about the locality to the initiated. A short search online will bring up many complex syllabaries of these signs collected from many sources and a facility in using them can be gained in fairly short order. Using the symbols, hobos could warn each other of the presence and temperament of dogs or other building occupants; could point the way to local campsites; and could identify good places where trains could be jumped, amongst other crucial information.

Some commentators claim that the system was merely a simple and useful means whereby wandering individuals - down on their luck and just looking to get by - could help keep each other from harm. However, as with most things of this nature, some factions could turn the benign system to dark ends and, as a result, many symbols arose which were of benefit to that subset of hobo-kind referred to as “yeggs”, or hobos who survived by means of breaking and entering buildings and from thievery. Ultimately, a dark tone of criminality suffused the code system.

The symbols were made available to young people through the American scouting movement who included the syllabary in their guide-books as a way of identifying local hobo activity: such codes were often thought to be educational to young minds who were also taught other code systems from semaphore, to Native American pictograms to Sherlock Holmes’s “Dancing Man” cipher. But here’s the kicker: the Hobo Sign code was not real.


Many people in American history spent time on the road, living rootless lives and freewheeling their way across the country, illegally riding the trains. Among them were full-time hobos such as Jack Black (not THAT Jack Black), Joe Hill (not THAT Joe Hill), Bertha “Boxcar Bertha” Thompson and writer, Jim Tully; and other part-time hobos such as Woodie Guthrie, Jack London, Harry Partch, Louis l’Amour, Jack Kerouac and Robert Mitchum, among many others. None of these people mentioned, or recorded in their memoirs, ever having encountered a system of information transmission which helped them make their way across the country. In fact, the closest they come to it is Jack London’s memory about “monicas” (aka, monikers) being used:

“Water-tanks are tramp directories. Not all in idle wantonness do tramps carve their monicas, dates, and courses. Often and often have I met hoboes earnestly inquiring if I had seen anywhere such and such a ‘stiff’ or his monica. And more than once I have been able to give the monica of recent date, the water-tank, and the direction in which he was then bound. And promptly the hobo to whom I gave the information lit out after his pal. I have met hoboes who, in trying to catch a pal, had pursued clear across the continent and back again, and were still going.

In this sense, the “monica” is the equivalent of the modern graffiti artists’ “tag”, but with the more prosaic function of simply letting others know about who had passed through, when, and to where they were headed.

From the 1890s (when the term “hobo” arose in California) through to the end of the 1930s, newspapers reported sightings of hobo signs in local communities and even printed photos of hobos drawing the signs on walls and telephone poles – these were invariably staged by journalists filling a slow news day. Oftentimes partial syllabaries were published along with such fare in an attempt to instill local fear of the homeless within the community.

Ultimately, this is why the notion of a hobo sign language arose: America is a place which prides itself on the idea of everyone having a fair go, of everyone being able to achieve their goals by means of determination and hard work; an underclass of freedom-loving iconoclasts who flip the bird to this notion of the American Dream is undesirable to the status quo. A sign language which reveals just how the hobo community supposedly dupes and cons the average householder in order to slack off from responsible productivity is an object lesson to the citizens. This false cipher gives license, on some level, to the average American to despise the homeless and unemployed outsiders amongst them and, with impunity and justification, treat them with harsh – even brutal - disrespect. As sinister as the Hobo Signs might seem themselves, their purpose in being made is far more sinister again. Protocols of the Elders of Zion, anyone?

The American Boy Scouts were given this information as a spur to keep them from dropping out and deciding to jump off the Capitalist treadmill, instead adopting a slacker lifestyle (as we would term it nowadays) forged by sponging off others in the glamorously cool way depicted by Chaplin and others in liberal Hollywood. It’s highly likely that the Hobo Signs were derived by their conservative creators from Native American pictogram forms that proliferated among the Plains and Pueblo Indians (and other nations): this is in itself ‘marginalization by association’ and adds extra layers of wickedness onto the whole process. In fact, since to create the symbols and their meanings their originators would have to have had a level of understanding about hobos, the homeless, and their lifestyle, the stunning lack of empathy towards this subsection of the community that they reveal is truly gob-smacking in its cruelty.


So, what does this have to do with Call of Cthulhu and the idea of a world infested by the Lovecraft Mythos? Well, as much as tentacular horrors from outer space don’t really exist in the world (as far as we know), other unreal things might also inhabit our roleplaying worlds with impunity. In a fantasy world – or a fictional recreation of the factual one – such things as the Hobo Signs might be real, and function as their creators had intended. A tale of Mythos horror might well be revealed by the Investigators stumbling upon a cryptic communication being passed by itinerant drifters. The symbols indicate that there is “bad water” at a particular campsite: in what way is the water “bad” exactly? Investigators might follow directions given them by a dubious character only to encounter a hobo sign telling them to “run away!”: what do they do? A party might even adopt the symbols as a means of covertly discussing logistical or other issues in the course of their adventures. And what if the Hobo Signs were not in fact being used by hobos at all, but by some other, darker, malign and not-quite-human element of society…?

It’s a bit disillusioning to discover that something I read years ago in my Childcraft Encyclopedia - and which I took as gospel – turns out to be so much horse-pucky; however, the true nature of the phenomenon is illuminating and, on balance, hardly surprising. That being said, other aspects of the hobo lifestyle – their code of conduct and ethos, their jargon (much of which has passed into vernacular American English) and the lives of the famous among them – are true, and they throw illuminating spotlights onto the world in the times during which Lovecraft wrote and in which Lovecraftian stories are set. As usual, it’s an object lesson in learning to sift the evidence of history wisely…

Monday, 7 September 2020

Review: "The Lighthouse"

EGGERS, Robert, “The Lighthouse”, A24 Films LLC/Regency Enterprises/RT Features/Parts & Labor Productions, 2019.

Now, this is more like it.

I was beginning to think that the horror genre, at least in terms of cinema, was becoming a pre-chewed slab of James Wan-styled inconsequence. Everything was turning on sinister poppets and dead nuns set in pastiche previous decades trying too hard to be authentic. There didn’t seem to be a genuine vision out there, trying to find its own way through the morass. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there is a fair deal of interest out there in the genre and in taking it in new directions; none of it seems to be making it to the big screen, however. How good then, to discover something like this.

“The Lighthouse” is Eggers’s second full-length feature and is also (as was his first film) set in the New England area of America’s East Coast (I feel I need to be specific about this – most places where the British established colonies have regions named ‘New England’; Americans seem to think they are unique in this regard when they quite patently are not - the southern coastal region of New South Wales, for example, is also called “New England”). The scene is a lonely lighthouse on a rugged shoreline and the characters consist of two dour and weathered men both named Thomas (although initially, we are introduced to the younger of them as “Ephraim”). This set-up is hugely claustrophobic and lends itself immediately to all kinds of psychological distortion, since it turns out that at least one - or both - of them go quite loopy.

Adding to this closed-in feeling, the entire film is shot in monochrome, in a ratio of 1.19:1 (making each shot almost square) and using special lenses which modify red tones, causing them to darken significantly. This means that all imperfections in the actors’ skins are highlighted, giving them a craggy, beaten and slovenly look – perfect for two blokes living in hard weather on the far backside of the world. Every frame of this film feels like an old-time photograph come to life and this is a revelation. Adding to this, the dialogue is all taken from original sources, patterned after actual logs and accounts written by people of the period. It sounds a bit cod-pirate initially, but once you’re in the swing of it, it works beautifully.

In terms of casting, two better actors couldn’t have been chosen. “Old” Thomas is played by Willem Defoe who inhabits the role of the Ancient Mariner to perfection, while “Young” Thomas is portrayed by Robert Pattinson. Now, Pattinson is not my go-to guy for anything, really - he irritates the be-jeezus out of me more often than he doesn’t – but here, he’s perfect. He looks right; he sounds right; he’s just right for the part, as much as it pains me to say it. Of course, I watched all of the special features on the disc and the interviews with him talking about the role were just as I imagined they would be – affected; bored; self-obsessed – so it just goes to show that, when pressed, he’s a better actor than he claims not to be (he’s spent a bunch of time in the media recently claiming that he “doesn’t know how to act” – he’s lying, folks, and here’s the proof).

Defoe has that tried and tested ability to go from disdainful patriarch to grinning maniac in a heartbeat which has worked for him time and again across his career and here it not only works a treat but it feels real; multi-dimensional. Nothing rings false and both of these guys pitch to the back row in terms of their performances. Just watching them both chew up the gorgeous, weather-beaten scenery is worth the price of admission.

The narrative arc of this film is taken from a real historical event which happened in Pembrokeshire in Wales, in 1800-1801. Two lighthouse-keepers (or “wickies” as they called themselves), both named Thomas – Howell and Griffith - began a four-week stint at the Smalls Lighthouse situated 32 kilometres off the coast. The two were known to harbour animosity towards each other, inevitably falling to violent argument whenever they found themselves in each other’s company. A short illness affected the older Thomas after their arrival and, in the teeth of a rising gale, forced him to succumb. The younger man, fearing that investigation would mark him as the man’s murderer, kept the body in a box and lit the emergency beacon, signaling for help. Unfortunately, a savage storm prevented all boats from mounting such a rescue and, after the rotting body became unbearable to co-habit with, the remaining wickie lashed the box to the companionway railing surrounding the light and the elements took their toll upon it. At one point, the dead man’s arm protruded from its makeshift coffin, flailing around in the wind and causing a nearby ship to halt its rescue attempt – despite the emergency beacon – because they interpreted the waving arm as a sign that all, in fact, was well. The pounding of this same dead hand against the lighthouse window drove the remaining Thomas to the brink of madness and he was later rescued, after the storm abated, white-haired and gibbering. The event altered lighthouse-keeping policy from that point forward, ensuring that three men, rather than two, were assigned to each beacon from then on.

Much of this scenario has made its way into this film: the embittered and angry Thomases; the paired wickies; the monumental storm preventing rescue – it’s all here. Added to this is the almost unbearable confinement suffered by both men as they try to navigate the enclosed space which houses them. The Older Thomas is high-handed and imperious, citing his longer period of employment as evidence of his higher status, and careless about his personal habits and their effect upon the Younger Thomas (there is much farting and other noxious forms of scatology on offer here). Young Thomas has a dark secret which is slowly revealed as things progress and with which he wrestles guiltily, eventually coming to a kind of confession which seals the older man’s doom (Old Thomas treats the issue trivially and uses it rather rashly against the younger man). Young Thomas becomes obsessed with the light, access to which is denied him by the older man as a symbol of his experience and privilege, and his usurpation of power and claiming of ownership forms the bulk of the second half of the tale. There is some playing around with the notion that Older Thomas represents Proteus, the sea god, from Greek mythology, while Younger Thomas symbolizes Prometheus, the notorious stealer of holy fire: there are nods to all of this, but none of it is heavy-handed. Most of the more outrĂ© elements can be interpreted as Younger Thomas simply losing his mind and the carefully orchestrated equivocation of this material gives the piece extra strength and punch.

In the lead-up to this film’s launch I was hearing all sorts of Lovecraftian whispers that it was tied-in somehow to the Mythos. Sure, there are some tentacles and a pelagean creature (again, probably only in Young Thomas’s head) but, along with the New English association, much of this turned out to be – thankfully! – just some eager fan-boy’s hopefulness. If there’s a bit of this film to which I took exception, it’s the killing of the seagull, which is horrific, and I was truly thankful to learn that it was done using special effects – despite there being no “No Animals Were Harmed…” disclaimers in the credits, which was a bit disturbing to note.

In the final analysis, this is an excellent and stylish piece of work that is very much worth your time in checking out. It has nothing to do with Lovecraft and the Mythos - despite what the breathless hordes are panting - but don’t let that put you off: it's its own beast and a deliciously horrid one at that.

Five Tentacled Horrors from me.