Author’s note: I wrote this piece for the Winter 2001-2002 issue of Route 66 magazine. It was my first professionally published magazine piece. I was a different writer then, though not perhaps quite that different than I am now. In the spirit of a happily haunted Halloween, I reprint it here, literary warts and all, unaltered even though some of the details are no doubt out of date. Photos by Ellie Tam.
On October 25, 1829, the gates of Eastern State Penitentiary — ESP — creaked open to admit the first of many criminals who would be confined behind its walls and within its solemn cells. Designed by John Haviland, one of the most storied architects of 19th century Philadelphia, it was the first true penitentiary in the young United States of America, embracing the “Pennsylvania System” conceived of by Benjamin Franklin. The primary principle behind the system was that imprisonment should be a time of reflection and penitence, with prisoners confined to solitary cells with very little to do beyond stare at the blank white walls and think about their sins.
Last Halloween, I wrote an article on Alcohol Professor about haunted bars in New York City. Well, gather ’round the campfire, children, because I’ve more macabre drinking tales yet to tell. Only this time, we’re going global. Son of Booooozy Tales: Haunted Bars Go International looks at haunted pubs, bars, and watering holes in New Orleans, Seattle, London, Wales, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Sydney. Be ye fairly warned. The person sitting next to you at the bar might have been there since the 1800s.
“There is no monster in the world so treacherous as man.”
So we are reminded at the beginning of Larry Buchanan’s Creature of Destruction and, just in case we forgot, at the end of the film as well. I like a film with a message, but the message is considerably less interesting if the film has to print it out for you. But hey – at least the guy was trying, which is more than can be said for most films. And in the end, this film is made in the tradition of sci-fi and horror films of days gone by, when such films had messages and delivered them with all the subtleties of a stoic military general surveying some scene of mass carnage and reflecting on the follies of man. Creature of Destruction is Buchanan’s homage by way of remake. In this case, it’s a remake of 1956’s The She-Creature, a movie that never exactly called with deafening thunder to be remade.
Director Gordon Hessler is back for another AIP Poe adaptation, this one mildly clever in the way it incorporates the Poe elements into the film. As we saw with The Oblong Box and many others, it was common to take the title of a Poe short story or poem, apply it to the film, then have not the slightest thing to do with the Poe story of the same title in the plot. Murders in the Rue Morgue takes the title from Poe’s story, but instead of adapting it or discarding it, sets its action around a theatrical production of Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue that becomes plagued with murders and yet another vengeful disfigured madman who was buried alive. According to Hessler, this was done because Murders in the Rue Morgue had already been made into a movie, and everyone knew how it ended. Thus there was no suspense in the film — not that Hessler was all that great at creating suspense anyway.
When it comes to spooks and spectres and things that go bump in the night, Prague is undeniably one of the richest towns in the world. Its bizarre history, winding streets, and jumble of architecture spanning centuries’ worth of styles make it the perfect setting for tales of the macabre and unexplained. On these streets prowled the golem created by Jewish mystic Rabbi Loew and the socially awkward Iron Knight, still trying to get a young woman to listen to him for a couple of hours so he might be freed of his murderer’s curse. Most famously, Prague was the center of medieval alchemy thanks to the obsession of its one-time ruler, Emperor Rudolf II, who invited mystics and alchemists and wizards from across the world to come to Prague. Deep beneath the cobblestone streets of this most mysterious of cities, at the Speculum Alchemiae, one can walk the secret passages and hidden laboratories where these sorcerers sought to unlock the secrets of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life.
My latest Frolic Afield at Alcohol Professor takes me far afield indeed, through New England, past Halifax, and up into the wild north of Nova Scotia. Malt & Moose is the tale of this journey most epic, a journey that included inadvertent weapons smuggling, attractive border guards, grazing moose, and of course whiskey since the point of the trip was a visit to Glenora, Canada’s first single malt whiskey distillery.
In another Frolic Afield over at Alcohol Professor, I take a look at the growing trend of “single grain” whisky. With the Grain explains what single grain whisky is and how it’s different from single malt, then looks at some of the brands whisky distillers are pushing onto the market in their ever more aggressive attempts to steer people away from single malt whisky with an age statement.
My latest Frolic Afield over on Alcohol Professor is an account of my September 23rd Mabon Feast. Of course, one celebrates Mabon with offerings from one’s bountiful harvest of grains, including barley, rye, and corn. Granted, in Pairing Bourbon and Cheese With Four Roses, my grains have been distilled into Four Roses bourbon and paired with a selection of French cheeses, but I assume that’s fine with the goddesses and forest folk.
There is a moment in Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a relatively unimportant throw-away couple of seconds, where the nominal hero of the story catches sight of a couple of shadows — shadows with no physical source to cast them — creeping across a field. Either because of the particularly old source material or the specific intention of the director, the film is grainy, hazy, gauzy. And it captures perfectly the prevailing atmosphere of Vampyr and why I love the film so dearly. Ostensibly a vampire film — thus the title — the hypnotic power of the movie flows not from the more visceral terror of bloodsuckers and murderers, but rather it comes from a much vaguer, ethereal place, something to do with ancient beings glimpsed from the corner of the eye, from unnerving mysterious powers, from murky forests and glens that are at once idyllic and unnerving. There is something very pagan about Vampyr that places it, for me, not so much among the famous works of vampire film and fiction, but alongside stories like Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and films like The Wicker Man.