Saturday, 17 October 2020


From a certain slant, the character of Old Castro in HPL’s “The Call of Cthulhu” looks like it was named after an associate of Lovecraft’s whom he met during his stay in New York. I say that it looks that way but there’s a bunch of textual (and contextual) evidence that works against this idea which even HPL’s biographer L. Sprague de Camp overlooked. It’s likely – on balance - that Adolphe Danziger de Castro was not the inspiration behind the character (or, at least, its name), but from where, having eliminated this option, might it have sprung?

The name Castro is a very old one, originating in Spain. It literally means “castle” and was assigned in its early iterations to those who lived in, built or maintained such edifices. There are Italian, French and Portuguese versions of the name and variants in other associated dialects as well. Additionally, it’s one of the oldest Spanish immigrant names in mainland USA, being first recorded in Santa Barbara, California, in 1794. These days, genealogical sources for the history of the Castro clan are concentrated in Spain and along the Western seaboard of North America, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Of course, there are Castros all over the planet, and evidence of their multitudinous existences can be found alongside them; but evidential historical material for the various branches of the clan are singularly to be found in these areas. As Spanish names go, it’s probably not exactly the equivalent of “Smith” in English, in terms of being as common as muck, but it’s certainly close.

Lovecraft was probably looking for a fairly standard Spanish name for this fellow in his narrative; he was probably wanting to create a character who was an immigrant of some kind, an outsider from somewhere else, and the logical options for a place of origin were all the homes of Spanish-speaking communities – Mexico; Central or South America; the Caribbean, or Cuba. This last country might have been floating high in HPL’s thoughts.

Cuba was going through various ructions in the early part of last century. It went from being a protectorate of the US, to an independent state (with heavy US oversight), to a Republic, across the first 40 or so years of the Twentieth Century and there was a heavy cross-pollination of people and ideas between the two countries. Cuba was a key place for Americans to visit after the introduction of Prohibition, and the illicit importation of rum and other alcohol from Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean was a giant money-spinner for the US criminal community. After the stock-market crash in 1929, New York was reported to have been overrun with Cuban bartenders looking for work – obviously, these last events post-date Lovecraft’s crafting of his tale, but it shows the links that existed between the two countries at the time.

Fidel Castro and his socialist power-plays were decades away from Lovecraft in time when he was putting together this story; however, the name was common enough in the Spanish-speaking world that it would have made sense to him to use it for this particular character, underpinning his creation’s low social standing and status. As a name for a lowly commoner, a humble labourer or drifter, it’s more than suitable; but what inclined him towards the name as appropriate for someone steeped in illegality, or criminality? It’s clear from his correspondence that, for most of his life, HPL looked down upon anyone ‘foreign’ to US society, or existing outside of his own bubble of genteel, white, Anglo-Saxon refinement; so combining notions of the ‘commoner’ alongside those of the ‘criminal’ in the creation of Old Castro was probably just instinctual as far as he was concerned. However, there was a very famous Nineteenth Century criminal incident involving a person with the name “Castro” that might just have tipped the balance for Lovecraft as to whether or not to use the name in this instance.

We know, just to get this out of the way right from the start, that Lovecraft considered himself a ‘man out of time’; that he would have liked to have time-travelled back to the Nineteenth Century – or earlier – to an era when he felt his nature and capabilities were more suited to the life which he would liked to have led. It’s not unreasonable therefore, to infer that he would have read up on those periods where he felt himself to be more spiritually at ease. If he did – and most of us think he did - it’s highly likely that he would have stumbled across the kerfuffle that was the case of the Tichborne Claimant.


While few nowadays might have heard of this Nineteenth Century scandal, at the time it was a huge affair and its ramifications – both social and legal - were serious and wide-ranging. British society was sharply divided on the question and a small industry of publishing and other forms of income generation to fund legal challenges coloured society at all levels. It spawned fraternal organisations working both for and against the claims of those involved and influenced media and governmental discussions within England and throughout the Colonies. Essentially, it was the tale of an incidence of fraudulent impersonation.

In April of 1854, Roger Tichborne, heir to the ancient and highly lucrative Tichborne title and estates, went missing when the ship in which he was travelling was wrecked soon after leaving Valparaiso. His mother – French and living in Paris – was beside herself with grief, refused to acknowledge that her son had died, and sent out notices across the globe asking for information as to his whereabouts. Her prime motivation was that some of the people aboard the foundered ship were rescued by another passing vessel which later offloaded these survivors in Sydney. It was assumed that Roger Tichborne was one of these and, for reasons unknown, had decided to lie low and to not notify his relatives of his status. In the meantime, the title passed on to another Tichborne, who proceeded to drink himself into oblivion.

In Australia, eager opportunists were on the alert for anyone who might fit the description of the blue-eyed, slightly-built, dark-haired young man, and a reputable lawyer thought he’d found the fellow working as a butcher in Wagga Wagga. He wrote to the Dowager and told her of his discovery, keen for her to forward funds which would help her putative son pull himself together and get back home. Eventually, she agreed to do so and - after a wild period of partying in Sydney, funded by the promise of the soon-to-be-gained inheritance – the so-called "Tichborne Claimant" went to London, prior to journeying on to France, there to confront his mother and be accepted as the rightful heir. It couldn’t fail; after all there was little to differentiate the two men:

Some of you might have spotted the obvious error. Roger Tichborne had been a willowy, dewy-eyed sort of a lad, while the Claimant was 25-stone (160kgs) of work-hardened muscle, running swiftly to fat, with reddish hair and grey eyes. Roger had been raised in Paris and spoke French fluently (and spoke heavily French-accented English); the Claimant knew not a word of the language. Further, he could never remember the first name of his supposedly beloved mother. Incredibly though - and probably driven to do so through grief - at their first meeting, she claimed vehemently that he was her son, returned miraculously from the sea.

Inevitably, the matter went before the courts. Both sides in the debate plundered the list of Roger Tichborne’s known associates looking for those who were prepared to sign affidavits as to the true identity of the Claimant (and paying exorbitant bribes to get the right responses). Meanwhile, the Claimant’s movements and activities in Australia were examined with a fine tooth-comb and it swiftly turned out that he’d shot himself in the foot almost before the swindle had even begun: upon arriving back in London, the first thing he did after disembarking was to contact his old family, the Ortons, and he was eventually unmasked as Arthur Orton, butcher, from a long line of English butchers. The trial lasted two years from 1873 to 1874 and the jurors found against Orton, who was sentenced to seven years in gaol for fraud, concurrent with a seven year sentence for perjury (he had, during the trial, defamed Lady Radcliffe, Roger’s ex-fiancée by claiming to have slept with her; turns out, Roger had an unfortunate deformation of his penis which meant that this was highly unlikely). Orton saw out his sentence, then wrote a book explaining why he’d done what he did. This led to a career on vaudeville stages in England and the US where, after getting up and telling everyone who he was, the audience was invited to pelt him with rotten fruit. He died in 1898.


So, what does this have to do with HPL and his character from “The Call of Cthulhu”? Interestingly, after Orton first fled England, he tried to lay low in various occupations, all of which failed, including a stint as a sheep rustler. Because of this last career choice, he had to keep a low profile, moving to the (then) remote town of Wagga Wagga and changing his name to “Thomas Castro”. Until presented with the temptation to ride the Claimant ticket as far as it would take him, he was content with this assumed name and, even after his association with the Ortons was revealed during the trial, tried reverting to this assumed identity rather than be exposed as a member of his own opportunistic clan (it was his own brother who shopped him to the Tichbornes for a large pay-day).

Despite the outcome of the trial, the case resonated long afterwards through British society. In legal circles, the matter of his sentencing was considered contentious, the concurrent sentences being seen as a watering-down of the Might of the Law and the arguments about whether or not it was appropriate went on interminably. Tichborne Claimant memorabilia had been selling like hotcakes and, even today, fetches good money (a Tichborne Claimant legal defense bond sells for about $150 these days, and his cartes-de-visite are to be found everywhere). The idea of a lower class man risking everything on the throw of a dice just to blacken the eye of the nobility stoked a fire throughout working class England and cries of “Justice” for the "deprived" Claimant were heard right through to the next century. For the Tichbornes, it was a hollow victory, as all of their cash had been squandered to pay for bribes and legal costs.

I’m not certain as to which side of the debate Lovecraft would have weighed in on, but I’m fairly sure – as conservative as he was – that he would have deplored the actions of "Castro". For HPL, social class was a fait accompli, and someone trying to better themselves through the tawdry involvement of the courts and an assumed persona would have been something that would not have sat right with him. Noble bloodlines, familial inheritance and long genealogies are things that Lovecraft would have championed; not for him the “rags-to-riches” Hollywood happy ending of a Preston Sturges melodrama. Further, this was a tale of attempted corruption, of an assault upon the pure lineage of a genteel line of descent. The whole issue smacks of the type of hated miscegenation which, before New York, would have made Lovecraft’s blood boil. And it would have informed the character of “Old Castro” to a tee.

Did HPL know about the Tichborne Claimant affair? We’ll probably never know (although I’m sure someone out there with an intimate knowledge of his correspondence will tell me!). However, the scandal was huge and occupied almost sixty years’ worth of broadside real estate, even following "Castro’s" death, after he returned, broken and humiliated, from his tours of America. But there’s another reason why the matter might have leapt on to Lovecraft’s radar: the Tichborne family line was haunted:

In the Thirteenth Century, Lady Mabella Tichborne lay dying. As her time drew near, she implored her husband to instigate a tradition whereby, each Lady Day (March 25th), loaves of bread would be given freely to whomsoever showed up to the estate to claim them. This would come to be called the “Tichborne Dole”. Lord Tichborne, grumpy old bugger that he was, said that he would allocate grain for this purpose from as many fields as she could walk around carrying a burning torch. She managed to drag herself off her deathbed and crawl around a 23-acre field north of Tichborne Park which, to this day, is still known as “The Crawls”. Afterwards, she cursed the family line before dying, saying that, if the Dole were ever discontinued, thereafter the family would produce seven sons who would themselves only produce daughters, thus destroying the clear line of familial descent. The Dole was interrupted in 1821, supposedly activating the curse, which led directly, some say, to the ruination of the family that took place thereafter. You don’t have to have read “The Rats in the Walls” to know that this sort of thing was grist for Lovecraft’s mill and that, if he’d caught wind of it, he would have followed it up.


This is all just supposition because, as I’ve already said, there’s no way to prove any of it. Most likely, HPL picked the name 'Castro' randomly from the ‘phone book and just liked the sound of it. It just seems odd to me that the character has a name at all, when the story would have sailed on equally as well if he’d been nameless. I like to think that Lovecraft was a little less arbitrary than that. This is a writer, remember, who took the time to research what publications were being printed in Sydney in 1925 (The Bulletin wasn’t quite the sort of journal that HPL thought it was but, whatever) and where the Australian Museum was located in the same city while putting together the exact same story. He named this guy for a reason; we might never know what that reason was, but we can still speculate.

All we do know is that it wasn’t – apparently – Danziger.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Review: "The Witch"


EGGERS, Robert, “The Witch – A New England Folktale”, A24/Parts & Labor/RT Features/Rooks Nest Entertainment/Maiden Voyage & Motte Street Pictures/Code Red Productions/Scythia Films/Special Projects, 2015.

An ongoing complaint that I have with horror movies of late is that they don’t really say anything new. There’s a lot of pretty photography, some swell acting and interesting use of special effects (both digital and otherwise), but on the whole it’s all in support of material which is pretty lacklustre. The recent version of “The Colour Out of Space” springs to mind as does “Midsommar” – very nice to look at but nothing we haven’t seen before. Here too, we have the same notion – this is a very attractive piece of work but the story, the issues it wrestles with, the themes and subtext, are all tired old notions and tropes that offer nothing new to what has been done elewhere. It interests me to note that the production house A24 helped make this thing (along with a mind-boggling slew of other companies) and that they also had a hand in making “Midsommar” as well as Eggers’s next offering “The Lighthouse”. Is the creation of cinematic white bread fare (“Lighthouse” excepted) their raison d’être I wonder?

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a certain point of view. Many old-time film staples are no longer available, in any kind of format. Old ground-breaking movies are referenced as seminal but aren’t screening anywhere, able to be purchased on disc or tape, or streaming on any platform, even YouTube (although what IS available on YouTube is pretty amazing). Taking these old horror stand-bys and putting them through a 21st Century production routine is one way of ensuring that the old ideas don’t disappear into the haze of current blockbuster fare – there’s a reason we have radio stations that play Golden Oldies. However, it seems to me that these “new” films rarely take the time to acknowledge their roots and to tip their hats to the masters of yore. Memories are long however, and there are those of us who are simply left scratching our heads and saying “and…?”.

Basically, if you’ve seen “Children of the Corn” or “The Wicker Man”, you’ve seen “Midsommar”; if you’ve seen “Creepshow” or “The Thing from Another Planet”, you’ve seen “The Colour Out of Space”. Here, if you’ve seen “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, then you’ve seen “The Witch”. It’s not as if the storylines are necessarily the same – if fact they’re suitably different – but the issues, the tropes, the way the plots unfold, the issues which they dangle from, are all standard and well-thumbed. In fact, they’re expected, to such a degree that these films must only be considered pastiche versions of earlier material, with an unacknowledged fealty to what has gone before.

There’re are some caveats with this movie. The long list of production companies that starts the film is a clear indicator that this is a first feature from an upcoming director. When you’re new, you have to hustle a lot to get funds for your project, and here it’s clear that Eggers spent a long time schmoozing before his film got green lit. A common feature of this practice is that you don’t want to scare away the money by doing something that’s too ‘out there’, that’s untried and which may not induce a return on investment by attracting viewers. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Eggers’s first feature is somewhat comfortable; that it’s a safe option in many respects: we have to acknowledge that there would be no “Lighthouse” without the “Witch” paving the way.

That being said, Eggers does work hard to make his piece seem a little bit above the herd. He is a stickler for period detail and there’s plenty to enjoy here. The language especially rings true here, taken as it is from old journals and court case transcriptions: if you’re going to build characters from their dialogue you can do worse than use the actual words of those who lived when your story is set. The result is very satisfying and works better than just having the actors bung on a cod-Brit accent and tossing in handfuls of “thees” and “thous”. Of course, using actual Brits to portray your nascent Americans is a smart step also. There are nice period details outside of the language too – the wardrobe and set design has all been obviously well-researched and the functioning of this stuff is nicely established.

Eggers likes having animals act in his flicks and this caused me huge problems during “The Lightouse”. I had to stop the film at the point when Young Thomas thrashes the seagull to death and I spent a long time checking up whether or not they had actually killed a bird on film – thankfully they did not. Here in “The Witch” there are a lot of animals involved – several goats, a horse, a dog and some ravens – and I was bit leery of some of it. There are at the end, several goat carcases lying about which always gives me pause – the sophistry that “these are animals which will probably be killed anyway so let’s record it for posterity”, is a thin and nasty one as far as I’m concerned and needs to be stopped, otherwise we should just go all Michael Cimino on our movies and kill anything that moves for the sake of cinema verité (I don’t think). This is cinema people, not snuff video production. There are standards. There are actually moments in “the Witch” where it’s clear that no animals are involved in some of the scenes where they are crucial, and that their involvement is implied rather than shown. Black Phillip’s attack on William is revealed as a jump-cut and the resulting collapse of the burgeoning log pile is filmed so that neither the actor or the animal – it’s clear – are anywhere near the potential danger. It’s nowhere near as bad as the fact that Barry Lyndon’s leg is actually stuck through the bed he’s lying on at the end of the eponymous film, but it’s ballpark.

Along with this there’s a confusing moment after Thomasin and Caleb are lost in the forest and their horse – Bert – is scared off. Caleb tries to re-locate it and only finds a mutilated body fallen into a thicket at a later stage. I had to stop the film at his point because it wasn’t clear if the body was that of the horse or of the dog (which had also fled from the witch’s assault): it was far in the background, fuzzy and indistinct. Kudos for sparing us the trauma of a dying animal but points off for nebulosity.

The atmosphere of the film is suitably moody and dark, in line with the tempestuous emotions of the players. Eggers’s film crew, under the guidance of Jarin Blashcke, are top notch and really deliver the goods here, while offering a promise of what was to come in their next project. The supernatural elements are all nicely low-key, allowing an equivocal perspective on the events while also delivering some good shocks. The apple was a particularly nice touch, I thought. The ending felt a little twee to me – if the reveal that (*gasp!*) the witches are real was supposed to be startling, then it was killed at birth (much like the infant Samuel at the start, which was genuinely alarming and which actually de-bags the cats that the ending was relying upon). I was left wondering why we were being asked to be shocked by something which, from the beginning, was a fait accompli.

All of this aside, this is an entertaining work but, if you’re the sort of person who gets stressed by the tangles of bigoted religious distrust upon which “The Crucible” is built, then you might want to steel yourself. Eggers takes old cloth and makes new jackets from it – not as ineptly as in that despicable version of the “The Scarlet Letter” that starred Demi More and Gary Oldman (shudder!) – in fact, it’s quite an engaging piece. But nevertheless, it’s still old ground being covered.

Three-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors.


Postscript: The marketing for this film is really annoying. If you look it up online you’ll see a cool image of a goat’s head (Black Phillip) and the standard title and tagline. But when I bought the DVD, the cover here in Australia is a cheesy shot of a naked chick walking through the woods under a full moon (as seen above). I mean, who makes these shit decisions? I’d rather have the goat’s head image than yet another cheesecake-y soft-porn shot that makes me uncomfortable when I front up to the cash register. All I can say is that marketing types have filthy, dirty little minds that inevitably run to lowest denominator thinking. This film is not about naked chicks walking through forests; it’s about something else. I refuse to even consider the possibility that the promoters of this DVD actually watched the thing – they just looked at some screen grabs and said, “that’ll do it – the shot with the naked chick”. Sheesh!

The other point that bothers me is the amount of flak the title gets for printing the word “witch” with two V’s rather than a W. Lots of commentators bitch about how, by the time this film is set, W’s were in common parlance and no longer cobbled together from unused V’s. Now, that might be true, but when you’re pilgrim settlers on uncharted shores, your available stocks of movable type are limited and, if you’ve lost your W, then two Vs will do it. Cut these guys some slack!