Prince of Darkness Takes a Bite Out of October

San Diego is a town that loves its Halloween. I noticed this when I moved here in the first week of October 1980. Retail shops displayed PVC pumpkins and skulls amid ubiquitous floor-to-shoulder-height displays of bale-sized sacks of chocolate bars. Flimsy, sad, plastic costumes and cheaper masks would cheat children of superhero fantasies or the hope of frightening anyone as a witch or ghost. Adults were wearing thrift-store snap-brims, shades, and $2 suits and ties as the Blues Brothers that year.

Though the Crypt at Park and University, with its window tableaus of S&M torture alongside cobwebs and fright-wigged clowns, were still in America’s Finest Future, it was clear: here is a town, fully four weeks before All Hallow’s Eve, that loves things that go bump in the night.

The whole month of October, some cable channel or other (I don’t work for TV Guide, so look it up yourself ) is presenting Hammer horror films regularly. Aside from my own infatuation with all things dark, this is a rare occasion (okay, less rare these days) for me to wax nostalgic.

Parked in Barbara Ann Delveccio’s father’s 1967 Mercury while wrestling bucket seats, a handful of barbiturates (until recently called “goofballs” by the greaser supplier), and Barbara Ann, I took in (with one eye) Vincent Price in The Pit and the Pendulum on the drive-in screen in Antioch, Illinois. Ah, teen love, before cynicism girded my romantic loins and a full decade before Barbara Ann’s mustache.

Logging on to Hammer’s website: “Launched in 1934, Hammer’s first production was The Public Life of Henry the Ninth.” Not much during the war years but “…in 1955 the success of The Quatermass Xperiment led to Hammer’s move into horror films, including The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 and Dracula in 1958. A hugely successful run of Gothic monster movies cemented Hammer’s reputation.

“Half-way through the 1960s deals were struck with Seven Arts and Twentieth Century Fox, which led to further horror classics, including The Plague of the Zombies, Quatermass, The Pit, and The Devil Rides Out, in addition to successful adventure films, including One Million Years BC… [I]n 1968, the company received the Queen’s Award for Industry. The 1970s saw a clutch of vampire movies and some lucrative movie spin-offs from British sitcoms. To the Devil a Daughter was the last Hammer horror feature in 1976….”

I continued my fumbling with a willing partner (singular, you’ll note; I later married her) often at drive-ins and often with a Hammer film soundtrack as a background. To the Devil a Daughter was one of the movies, and I had read the Dennis Wheatley novel beforehand. I seem to remember another Vincent Price performance in The Abominable Doctor Phibes, though I don’t think it was a Hammer production. Still, though I had changed over the years (the drugs were better: Quaaludes instead of Seconal), and I was more literate (I had read all of Poe and was working my way through Wheaton’s oeuvre: The Satanist, The Devil Rides Out, etc.), true existential horror lay ahead of me. I had yet to experience divorce, cancer, and a few other life-threatening diseases...as well as trying to replace a lost I.D. at the California Department of Motor Vehicles and trying to locate a dentist on a Sunday.

Speaking of Hammer, though, I recently picked up The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 19, edited by Stephen Jones. In Jones’s introduction, I read: “In October [2007], the original cape worn by Christopher Lee in Hammer’s 1958 version of Dracula was discovered in a London fancy-dress shop. The shop called upon the actor to verify that the item was authentic. Apparently missing for 30 years and worth an estimated 24,000 British pounds sterling [$45,000?], the cape was discovered during an annual stock check at Angel’s Fancy Dress, who had been hiring it out to customers at Halloween. The long overcoat worn by Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing in the film was found at the same time.”

What is this compulsion to evoke that iron dark that holds us as enraptured as a mongoose before a cobra, and especially at this time of year? Arthur Machen suggested as he looked at the world:

“I say that all these are but dreams and shadows; the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond…dreams in a career, beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil…. You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true.…” — The Great God Pan.

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Ah, Mr. Brizzolara. How I miss talking with you about Machen and Blackwood. I'm glad you are doing better, and hope to see you doing well.

We do smear a veneer of what we would like to see---good or bad---over reality, like metaphysical peanut butter.

But as Machen observes, what is beneath remains.

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