Les Catacombes de Paris

During a recent sabbatical from the institution, Ludwig and I engineered a minor diversion and absconded, our vagrant feet taking us quite by chance to nearby St Pancras station. With our bellies full of mischief, we stowed aboard a train bound for Paris, and were abroad in that city for four whole days before the gendarmes caught up with our whereabouts and returned us, iron-clad, to Doctor Jack’s sanctuary. Though our sojourn was to be desperately brief, I determined to make hay while the sun shone – joie de vivre, as they say – and as I‘d heard other inmates describe the strange and macabre beauty of the Paris catacombs (amongst other tawdry tales), I convinced Ludwig that we should try to squeeze in a quick visit during our adventures.

catacombs blog 1Thus, on a warm, spring afternoon we found ourselves amidst a growing horde of visitors, slouched in a serpentine queue that coiled restlessly around Place Denfert-Rochereau in the district of Montparnasse. A second-hand guidebook kept us occupied meanwhile, as I related to my companion how it was that the catacombs came to be. Apparently, in the 18th century, Paris’ cemeteries had been full to bursting, with the resulting leakage causing something of a stink. In 1785 the authorities decided to disinter the remains of these bloated boneyards, transporting them for storage in disused quarry tunnels lying below the city’s streets [1]. The first graves to be exhumed were at the Cimetière des Innocents in 1786, and the remains of over six million Parisians were subsequently transferred from graveyards between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries [2].

The line shuffled excruciatingly slowly towards the museum’s entrance. Once through the turn-stile, we descended narrow, stone steps which led to a series of rooms lined with display boards detailing the geological evolution of the Paris basin and the history of the limestone quarrying which created this network of tunnels. Winding through the dimly-lit passageways, the subterranean air was noticeably cool and still, and as we ventured further, echoes of nervous chatter glanced off the walls like the chirruping of playful bats.

catacombes blog IIIAt last we reached the entrance to the ossuary, over which a stone lintel bore the legend, ‘Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort’ (‘Halt! This is the realm of the dead’). We crossed the threshold and were greeted by the most staggering array of human bones, neatly stacked to either side of a roughly-hewn passage which disappeared into the gloom. Immediately one noticed how beautifully the bones had been organised; radial bones layered separately from tibias and femurs, creating an undulating, knobbly lattice-work studded with skulls. In places, the skulls were arranged together in simple designs, like stones set in wet sand at the beach. Hearts and crosses seemed to be popular motifs, recalling the folk art of Central America or pre-Christian Europe.

catacombs blog 3As we traced our route through the tunnels, reading the plaques that indicated the cemeteries from which the remains had come, I pondered the many stories that these old bones might tell. On top of one stack lay a broken skull, its mandible gone, the back of the cranium smashed away. At some forgotten time, that hollow cavity would have been filled with aspirations and anxieties, treasured memories and primal impulses. Perhaps some brilliant scientific genius had thrived in there, or a celebrated artisan. I noted cracked and punctured skulls and, again, wondered whether the owners had met bad ends in dark Parisian alleys, or simply fallen under the gravedigger’s mattock. With millions laid to rest down here, it seemed as if all life must be present.

IMAG1231_BURST002_COVEREventually, the exhibit trailed off as the path meandered back up to street level. Returning to the sunlight, young Ludwig remarked that the catacombs had not been as spooky or as grisly as he’d imagined, but that they were instead rather sad. I shared his melancholy mood, but I’d also been half expecting a lurid, Grand Guignol with crude theatrics, so was grateful that the museum was laid out simply and thoughtfully, and that its occupants were not marketed for cheap thrills. Instead, our hosts humbly invited us to pause and consider our own fragile mortality, and in return our imaginations breathed life into those old bones. Ordinarily, we might have only abstract notions about the lives of strangers, of what goes on behind the façades of the city’s streets. Meeting so many strangers here, after all their songs had been sung, I considered that, inevitably, each phrase ends with the same refrain; its tempo set by an indifferent sweep of the scythe.

[1] Le Nevez, C., Pitts, C. & Williams, N. (2015); Paris [10th edition], Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, London

[2] http://www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/catacombs/more-2000-years-history

© RMRenfield and Blackwood Article, 2015

Sir Christopher Lee 1922 – 2015

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Sad news has reached us this week of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee, who died in hospital on Sunday, June 7th. He was 93.

Ludwig and I are bereft, of course. However, I don’t wish to trot out another earnest and reverent obituary; right now we’re tripping over enough column inches devoted to Lee’s extraordinary life and career without my regurgitating every detail. As I scribble this down, the inter-web is alight with tributes, news clips and dedications which attest to the far-reaching impact of this colossus of British cinema. As Lee himself noted, he has touched, through his portrayals of innumerable heroes and villains, film fans of every generation alive.

Like many of us, I was in awe of Christopher Lee from the moment I encountered him in his role as Dracula. As a young fan, I relished his every appearance as the undead Count, and my admiration grew as I then became acquainted with his Kharis, his Rasputin and his Duc de Richelieu. By the mid-eighties, Lee had an impressive body of work behind him, so I discovered Scaramanga and Summerisle alongside Fu Manchu and Henry Baskerville, and couldn’t yet understand why the actor had wanted to distance himself from the vampire. To my mind, although Christopher Lee was Dracula, he could be as compelling in other guises. It was rather more that ‘Dracula’ was Christopher Lee; if Stoker’s devil was king of the vampires, then Lee was the king of Draculas. Unwittingly perhaps, he created a monster which required feeding, like a leech. The vampire relies on a vigorous host, and Lee gave Dracula a vitality against which all subsequent portrayals have been measured. For this poor wretch at least, he will remain imperator in perpetuo, King of the Mountain.

 

© RMRenfield and Blackwood Article, 2015

word from the front

A year ago, I started this web log with a groovy little mission statement – something about bathing in the murky waters of the macabre – and an idea that I would sit down to a hearty feast of arts and entertainments, chronicling each new discovery and peppering the ongoing reportage with anecdotes drawn from a dimly remembered youth.

Shortly afterwards, having written exactly three posts of varying quality, I was struck down by a debilitating case of indecision. I questioned my fitness for the job and, in a panic, hurried off to procrastinate further and consider whether I was qualified to write anything other than rude words in bus shelters.

During that period of intense navel-gazing, I realised that the aforementioned feast would take any mere mortal three lifetimes to consume. I thought myself to be a potato worthy of any couch, and a fairly well-read one at that, but still a Kafkaesque tower of books and films piled precariously upon my desk, like some exaggerated, Expressionist nightmare.  Oh, the Horror, Ludwig!! Where would we even begin?!

Yet, having established that there was a limit to how much the blog could cover, was it even worth the worry? I silenced the fretful, imaginary chorus, determined to begin cautiously by re-visiting a few perennial favourites, and to then proceed from there. Of greater concern to the anxious host of a fledgeling horror blog, sifting through countless other sites on the old FingerBobs, was the question of whether the world actually needed yet another compilation of 100 Most Horrifying Horror Films of All Time… Ever!

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t, and neither has the online community been on meat hooks awaiting the birth of family blackwood’s next, slithering article. Then the pin dropped; rather than being a barrier, this lack of expectation was license to write whenever, however and whatever. And similarly, that accumulated wealth of opinion needn’t be a deterrent to my two-penneth, but could be an invitation to contribute to the dialogue. Instead of waiting for permission, I simply had to get on with it.

So then…

© RMRenfield and Blackwood Article, 2015

Diana

I first proposed to keep this as a personal blog; intending to turn over one shiny stone after the other, as each caught the attention of my beady eye.  I thought to keep my musings under the all-enveloping cloak of ‘the mysterious and the macabre’, revisiting such grim artefacts as had chilled my heart in youth, whilst also digging up newer finds and cracking them open to see what ran out.  Selections would be made arbitrarily, based on nothing more than idle fancy, and then laid upon the slab for further examination.

What I hadn’t considered was that, sooner or later, reality would intrude, daring to stain these pages with its oily digits.

The recent death of my maternal grandmother was not entirely unexpected, as she had been ill for some time.  Of course, no-one had been eager to see her off; she wasn’t an overbearing, fearsome matriarch – such as might be found tormenting their offspring in some tawdry, gothic fiction – but a kind and generous soul who will be remembered fondly by those who knew her.  In fact, I can scarcely think of anyone less macabre or mysterious, and she would certainly think it a rum do for her funeral cortège to be paraded through these grimy streets for our ghoulish entertainment.  Yet, there are a couple of reasons why her passing has inspired me to reminisce with you, dear reader.

Firstly, my apologies, for I’m afraid that a death in the family has a distinctly negative impact on one’s appetite to ‘ruminate on the dark arts…’.  Sadly, any lengthy illness brings with it enough pain, fear and anxiety to wear down both the patient and the family, who bear witness to their suffering, and so I haven’t been minded, of late, to stop in and consider whether Wilkie Collins would beat Poe in a punch-up (he wouldn’t), or debate the various merits of Carlos Villarias’ Conde Dracula.  Furthermore, the sleazy charms of celluloid blood-suckers, and the threadbare plot lines of tatty, old penny dreadfuls seem somewhat diminished in their powers when death itself creeps silently into the house and steals away with one’s elderly relatives.

However, my grandmother’s role in encouraging me down a crooked path must be gratefully acknowledged, for without her guiding influence (though she’d be horrified to hear it), I might not be the morbidly obssessive, fiendish entomophagist writing from this dark imaginarium.  You see, as a youngster, hearing my nan’s condemnation of my chosen reading materials only fuelled my ardour for all things creepy and crawly.  Fearing for my very soul, my grandmother appealed to my parents to curb my indulgences.  My gruesome fascination with Stephen King, horror comics and Hammer films would lead, said Nan, to perversions of the body and the mind  (there were whispers of skeletons in other families’ closets, held up in support of such lurid claims), and those flames were fanned by the tabloid papers, still shrieking their warnings about ‘video nasties’ corrupting the nation’s youth.  This was 1984, and our family would not own a video player for another year or two, but Nan was a silver saviour in her tracksuit and slippers, and she was taking no chances with her eldest grandson.  I scoffed, of course.  My insides were boiling over with a pre-pubescent lust for sex and violence which was sated only by the dark exotica of late-night television horrors, and by the shameless, blood-and-guts lechery found within the pages of Fangoria magazine.   My eyes were like organ stops and there was no looking back.  I was a Monster Kid now, and way beyond redemption – but it was in this crucible, where youthful exhuberence clashed with reactionary, but well-meaning antagonism, that my abiding love of horror was forged.

As time wore on, my grandmother mellowed in her approach.  My Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World was returned to me, and, for the sake of my mother, I agreed to stop taking Dennis Wheatley books with me when I stayed over.  I was even allowed to watch AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON once, when it turned up on the telly, although I was packed off to bed before Jenny Agutter got her claws into the Kessler boy.  I may not have always been so gracious, but I’m thankful now  for having had such a fervant moral guardian.  She was my Duc de Richelieu and my Father Merrin, ever ready to swash her buckle with whatever dark forces threatened to drag me to Hell.  I’m also thankful to grandmother for stopping short of fetching out her ducking stool, in order to determine whether I should be burned as a witch, and I’m sure she was equally relieved to see me reach adulthood without falling prey to satanists or becoming an axe-wielding maniac.  Perhaps I’m just a late bloomer.  Well, then I should be forced to acknowledge that she did indeed tell me so…

Diana, in memoria.

© RMRenfield and Blackwood Article, 2014