June 9, 2012
“The spiritualization of sensuality is called love: it represents a great triumph over Christianity.” — Nietzsche
Imagine a world without speed dating, “The Bachelor”, or that heartbreak staple, the lovelorn teen. Looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Alas, we have all this and more due in no small part to a twelfth-century courtier named Andreas Capellanus. Sometime around the year 1190, Capellanus wrote and published a short treatise called De amore, or About Love (often inaccurately called The Art of Courtly Love). Capellanus was a chronicler, compiling and codifying sentiments and behaviours that comprise modern love in embryonic form. Though often couched in spiritual terms (e.g., “Love adorns the man with the virtue of chastity”), he defines love as something very much of this world:
“Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.”
At a time when the spirit ruled, the body denigrated, and even feelings of passion for one’s own wife were considered sinful, De amore was revolutionary. By acknowledging the sensual, it presaged the humanism of the Renaissance. The body is no longer merely a container for the soul, but an essential extension of it.
Toward the end of the book, Capellanus lays out thirty-one “Rules of Love”. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
- Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
- He who is not jealous cannot love.
- No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
- It is not proper to love any woman whom one would be ashamed to seek to marry.
- A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
- Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
- When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
- Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
- He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
- A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.
Thanks for reading!
March 1, 2012
Recently, while browsing through my books, I asked myself (not for the first time), “What is the most interesting book that I own?” Maureen Duffy’s scholarly work, “The Erotic World of Faery” (1972) comes to mind, as does the infamous seventeenth-century witch-hunting manual, “The Compendium Maleficarum”. By and large, however, these books, while notable and deserving of more than a mere mention, are ultimately niche oddities that illuminate cultural phenomena with which we are already familiar.
I’ve decided to bring to your attention a book that I’m unable to read. Written in Japanese, it’s a slim volume comprised almost entirely of photographs. The title, which can be translated roughly as “Memories of a Housing Complex”, features images of 39 apartment complexes that were built—and since often abandoned or neglected—during the housing boom of the 70s and 80s.
Published only in Japan, the book is intended for an aging (and nostalgic) Japanese audience that yearns to reconnect with what most of us—regardless of nationality—perceive to be a simpler time. In the case of “Memories of a Housing Complex”, however, the Western viewer is unintentionally deprived of any of the identifiers that tell us, “This is Japan”. No geisha, no temples, no bustling high-tech hubs. When confronted with the mundane, as we are in this book, we search for clues that mirror the ordinariness of our own environments: playground swings, bicycles, stray dogs, laundry hung out to dry. It all sounds rather sad, but open skies and overgrown fields reawaken childhood memories, and viewers are encouraged to populate these tableaux with people and memories from their own childhoods. Perhaps that well-worn path was a shortcut to school; and isn’t that squeaky gate similar to the one I passed en route to visiting a friend? This active engagement with the pictures demythologizes Japan and invites the viewer into a shared space where tired memories find new life.
That’s enough from me. Enjoy a few sample pictures from the book itself!
January 28, 2012
I’ve never considered myself to be one of those people who seemed destined to write. Nature did not endow me with extraordinary powers of psychological observation, and for the first twenty-odd years of my life I felt no impulse to express myself in words. Words are not picturesque. I was very big on going to the movies at the time, so I made Super-8 films instead.
As I entered my early 20s, my attitude toward art became more passive. I read widely and majored in English at university. I tried my hand at writing and discovered that, while I had some facility with language, I had very little to say. Drinking with friends, playing darts, and shooting pool provided an attractive distraction.
The genesis of any creative endeavour is a tension that cannot be expressed by prosaic means. For example, I can swear at someone who has cut me off while driving, but that requires only that my vocabulary contains existing profanity. (And it does, believe me.) The source of tension might be one’s reaction to something external. Beatniks, hippies, and punks all created music (art) that was a response to their perceived sense of injustice and societal constraint. For others, the tension might be internal. An essential component of treatment for those with mental disorders is art therapy. The tension is eased when the internal becomes externalized, and one may feel reconnected with the larger world through the production of something concrete—something that can be shared. Seen in this light, art is not, as some claim, a frivolous luxury. There are, of course, scores of artists whose work is self-indulgent or derivative (enough with the Barbie doll installations already!), but that does not negate the necessity, the inevitability, of art.
It was not until I read Franz Kafka’s book, “Parables and Paradoxes”, that the true power of words became clear. The fragments and short stories that comprise the book are cloaked in ambiguity and spiritual mystery. Age-old problems of truth and meaning are approached tangentially, yet there is an undercurrent of wisdom that is beguiling, just out of reach. Kafka demonstrated to me that uncertainty could be met with still greater uncertainty, and that truth was not bound by the restrictions of logic.
Here is an example of a fragment from “Parables and Paradoxes”:
THE PIT OF BABEL
What are you building?—I want to dig a subterranean passage. Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel.
And so, between games of darts (priorities, here), I entered the world of metaphor, writing little meditations on loneliness and love without mentioning either by name. I wrote secrets to myself: impressions, half-thoughts, and contradictions—a kind of coded diary. I was pleased with the mystery of my own musings, taking comfort in the knowledge that any attempt to define myself to myself must remain vague. To use a darts analogy: I would never hit the bull’s eye, so why aim for the board at all?
But the charm of such introspection soon faded. After a while, it occurred to me that what I was doing was the literary equivalent of playing air guitar in front of a mirror. Wouldn’t I really rather be up onstage, playing to an audience? Well, yes. But that would require a separate blog entry.
Thanks for reading!
January 12, 2012
Most people are familiar with the Brontës, if only through osmosis. Their novels—which include “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre”—have left an indelible mark on English literature. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were extraordinary women, writing at a time (the Victorian era) in which proper women did not indulge in such intellectual pursuits.
Lurking in the background of the sisters’ lives was their black sheep brother, Branwell. A painter and poet of some promise who never truly developed his skills, Branwell was a hedonist who paid dearly for his pleasures. He achieved some small measure of success when a number of his sonnets were published in prestigious papers of the day, but his literary ambitions were thwarted by his own fecklessness and failure to follow through. His business pursuits were marked by rash and reckless decisions, and he left a trail of debt that would never be repaid.
Branwell’s final shame occurred when he was dismissed from a tutoring position due to the discovery of an affair he was having with the married mother of one of his pupils. He returned to the Brontë home in disgrace. Here he lapsed into inconsolable despair and surrendered his tormented soul to alcohol and laudanum. His verse, when he attempted it, was invariably self-pitying. No one wanted to read poems called “When all our cheerful hours seem gone for ever”, especially in the rural Yorkshire village of Haworth, the Brontë family home.
Branwell Brontë died of tuberculosis in 1848 at the age of 31. We now know as much about the anguish that drove him to an early grave as we are ever likely to know. In history, as in life, Branwell was a minor character in a much larger drama. Branwell Bronte exists today as a result of his sisters’ success. Whether or not he consciously compared himself to them is not known, and is really not important. Having developed over a period of time a fascination with human folly, my own hypothesis is that Branwell was a victim of his own mediocrity in every endeavour that he pursued. And it was his awareness of that mediocrity that led to his demise. He could not live up to his own ideal.
Back in the early ’90s, a friend and I visited Haworth as part of a larger literary tour of England. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of Branwell’s old haunts, the Black Bull pub, was (and remains) a thriving business. There was nothing in the place to suggest that Branwell had ever stepped foot in it. My friend and I raised several glasses in his honour. We drank until closing time.
I do not recall leaving the Black Bull, and that missing time remains my tribute to the memory of Branwell Brontë.
Thanks for reading.
June 11, 2011
Cognitive dissonance can be defined simply and with no loss of accuracy as the mind’s attempt to juggle and ultimately reconcile two or more conflicting ideas or beliefs. We experience cognitive dissonance on a daily basis: Yes, I will eat six doughnuts, but I will lose that weight when I begin jogging next week. But the mind is a restless and argumentative thing: Of course, it would be better to exercise some self-restraint and not eat the doughnuts, but I’m certain that I’m going to start jogging next week. Aren’t I? How many times have I broken that promise before? And so on and so forth until a decision is ultimately reached. But at what cost?
Some argue that cognitive dissonance plays the most important role in our psychological lives. Decisions are not always black and white, and we are in constant conflict between deciding what is best for us, versus what is best for our families, our communities, and the poor woman at the doughnut shop waiting for me to make up my mind. Our decisions generate new questions, new conflicts, and new feelings of guilt, denial, rationalization, and justification. Cognitive dissonance is not mental pathology; it simply attempts to describe how the healthy mind operates.
However, the phenomenon can prove devastating when taken to extremes. Dr. Lionel Festinger demonstrated perhaps the most dramatic case of the workings of cognitive dissonance in the realm of social psychology with the release of his book, “When Prophecy Fails” (1956). The book is both case study and riveting human drama.
In the early 1950s, a variety of people from all walks of life began to gravitate toward a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin. While experimenting with automatic writing, she had begun receiving messages from aliens in which they told her that the world would end in a cataclysmic flood on December 21, 1954. At that time, a UFO would arrive to save the true believers, who now spent most of their time in Mrs. Martin’s living room. Due to their increasingly close affiliation with the fledgling group, many lost their jobs, their spouses, their reputations, and everything they owned. With so much at stake, they now had little choice but to believe that “the spacemen” would come.
Upon hearing of the UFO group, Dr. Festinger planned an experiment in which he began to “plant” observers (his students) within the group. Each was to take copious notes, and it is these notes, including direct quotations from the group’s members, that make up the bulk of the book and provide an intimate glimpse into the thought processes of the group members.
Important dates came and went without the promised guidance of the aliens. Although a few members left the group, this only served to strengthen the beliefs of those who remained. As Festinger predicted, they developed something of a bunker mentality. They had simply invested too much of themselves in the belief that the UFO would come to rescue them. After the promised date of December 21 had come and gone without an appearance by the UFO, the group issued a startling press release:
If you’re interested in the case beyond the barebones treatment I’ve given it here, you can of course find additional, more detailed synopses on the internet. But I highly recommend reading the book. The characters are real people, and the author’s approach to his “subjects” is non-judgemental, even sympathetic. New editions of the book were published in 2009 and 2011, and can be purchased for a very reasonable sum from the amazon.ca/amazon.com website.
Thanks for reading.
May 3, 2011
Once upon a time, I believed that it might be possible for a man to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the power of his mind. Oh, dear.
The following article was published in Skeptic magazine, in an issue that included an article by Richard Dawkins and a whole slew of pieces about artificial intelligence! We also completed the short (30 minutes) documentary film, and I hope to figure out a way to post that before too long.
Thanks for reading!
Going to Meet the Man With the Camera Brain
While I didn’t exactly soar effortlessly through my teens and twenties, seizing the day and welcoming every sunrise and whatnot, life still unravelled mysteriously and with a charming lack of purpose. And then, at thirty, I wandered into a spiritual wilderness. Where a certain spontaneity had once been a fun if sometimes fickle guide, gray reason now usurped my ideals, and I became mired in a state of solipsistic glumness that was like teenage sorrow without the redeeming passion. With mortality now an increasingly real if distant reality, many in similar straits turn to religion, raising a family, or other similar time-honoured sources of succour. That is, people grow up. But for some of us, there lingers a spark of hope that we have not been entirely abandoned by that more innocent, childish age. And so we enter into a race with that old devil Time — a frenzied determination to find something to believe in again before the clock runs out.
In the early 1960s, in Denver Colorado, psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud was wrestling similar demons. A firm believer in the untapped potential of the human mind, Eisenbud’s frequent forays into the paranormal had nevertheless produced nothing in the way of concrete results. As long as empirical evidence was lacking, he said, no amount of anecdotal evidence could ever budge the stubborn fact that parapsychology would forever remain “the stepchild of science.” Shortly after reaching this gloomy conclusion, he got wind of Ted Serios, an ex-bellhop from Chicago who claimed to possess the remarkable ability to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the powers of his mind. The doctor and the psychic met one evening in room 1320-W at Chicago’s ritzy Palmer House hotel. Between double-orders of Scotch (“for my cold,” said Serios), the impish psychic clutched a Polaroid Land type 100 camera, pointed the lens directly into his own face, clicked the shutter and restored the doctor’s faith. Ted’s thoughts seemed to bleed miraculously onto the film. Photograph after photograph slowly came to uncanny life, rendering the impossible in black and white: the Chicago Water Tower, a hotel that had burned down years before, haunting suggestions of other unknown structures. Eisenbud emerged from the meeting convinced that Serios could somehow seize a fleeting thought and materialize it for all to see.
Now it was the late 1990s, and for my old friend Dennis and I, merely contemplating the existence of a character like Serios was a salve for our shared spiritual dread. A self-described bum whose humble goals consisted of drinking, womanizing, and (without forsaking the first two goals) obtaining the occasional psychic photograph, Serios was the embodiment of hedonistic surrender. And yet, whether through some fluke of fate or a strange sense of duty, he was also man enough to take on the very laws of nature. And as far as we knew, no one in the thirty-odd years since he first made his mark had anyone successfully debunked his claims. Was Ted Serios living proof that one could stagger through life, stumble on a great discovery, and find fame, all without losing one’s seat at the bar? Was Serios the guardian of a metaphysical miracle that would turn science on its head? With fingers crossed — and possibly while inebriated — we decided to contact Dr. Eisenbud.
“As far as your interviewing Ted, he’s never cared for interviews.” Jule Eisenbud’s ancient voice crackled over the line. He relinquished Ted’s phone number, but balked at surrendering his location. “He doesn’t want to be disclosed. He has a bad police record.” A new layer of intrigue arose. For a man on the lam, Ted was recklessly eager to jump back into the spotlight. In a series of lengthy, often rambling telephone conversations, he reassured us that his powers, dormant for nearly thirty years, could erupt again at any time. And he wanted us to bear witness. With an old Polaroid camera and as much film as we could afford, we hit the highway, determined to resurrect the reputation of the man whom science had so cruelly neglected.
In 1967, Eisenbud published the results of his extensive experiments with Serios in a book entitled The World of Ted Serios: ‘Thoughtographic’ Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. It is wonderfully written, full of humour, thoughtful analysis, and provocative ideas. It is also an unequivocal endorsement of Ted Serios’s wondrous thoughtographic brain. The book attracted legions of both believers and skeptics, and the little man who likely would have languished as an intriguing barfly and sodden supernatural footnote suddenly expanded his circle of influence beyond the local tavern. Soon, the world of Ted Serios counted scores of scientists, skeptics, and other respectable folk among its inhabitants. Thirty years later, that world was little more than a ghost town. Serios’s proponents had been driven underground. The skeptics had long since dismissed the phenomenon. Why?
In the beginning there was the gismo. Perhaps never before has such a fuss been made about something so crude and seemingly innocuous. Perhaps never before has humanity’s understanding of the natural world been challenged by a small roll of cardboard. Ted’s apartment, when we at last met him on a sizzling summer day in 1997, is littered with them. When obtaining a thoughtograph, Ted holds the gismo up to the camera lens to help him focus his psychic energy. I’d always thought of the gismo as a sort of bridge between the supernatural aether and the mundane reality of Ted’s gray matter, but the skeptics were never so broad-minded. They seized upon the gismo as evidence of legerdemain — a simple optical device that permitted any light-fingered charlatan to duplicate Ted’s “psychic photographs.” It was their smoking gun, the undeniable proof that Serios was nothing more than a very talented con artist who had either duped or been in cahoots with the good doctor. In their unyielding leeriness, they saw the gismo as a bridge between wild claims and harsh reality.
Ted turns out to be an amiable host. We’re all a bit awkward. Pleasantries are dutifully exchanged, and the meeting starts out like a visit to the psychic grandfather I never had. And then Ted spots our Polaroid camera. His affected smile transforms into a lusty grin. His eyes flash, and he begins stroking the camera. “This thing brings back a lot of memories,” he says wistfully.
Back in Ted’s heyday — when, as he says longingly, “there was no shortage of booze, women, nothin’” — he made scores of converts by capturing thoughtographic representations of images that were tightly sealed from his sight: abstract paintings, famous buildings, historical figures. When Ted got one of these “targets,” another affidavit attesting to his authenticity was as good as signed. He’s happy to hear that we’ve brought along our own targets. “When I want to get a target, I make love to that camera,” he explains, his hands still exploring the old Polaroid. “That’s all there is to it. If I talk nice to the damn thing like I talk to a woman, the thing will give in, you see?” Where Eisenbud got downright esoteric in his analysis of Ted’s abilities, the thoughtographer himself clearly isn’t much for theorizing. Indeed, shortly into our interview, it becomes painfully obvious that peppering Ted with our carefully prepared questions — “How do you explain the slight variations between the target and the image that appear in some of your thoughtographs? Do you feel that you have finally gained the acceptance by the scientific community that you desired?” — isn’t going to get us anywhere. He stares blankly or deflects each question, spinning it into a tale of his bawdy youthful adventures.
Fair enough, I think. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Ted is something of a holy fool — remarkably gifted and simultaneously oblivious to the profound effects that his abilities will have on our understanding of ourselves and the world. We’re here as guests, not disinterested scientific observers, so it only makes sense that Ted should call the shots. After numerous attempts to capture our targets result only in blurry pictures of Ted’s grunting face, frozen in various unflattering expressions of mental exertion, the weary thoughtographer announces that he’ll need some beer to grease the psychic gears. “I work the best when we sorta make a party out of it,” he confesses. “Everybody is having a good time. Then it seems like it comes real easy. Otherwise, it’s a grind. It really is, and that’s all there is to it.” As I get up to head off to the liquor store, Ted jams the camera against the back of my head and takes a picture. This strikes me as a pretty crude way to photograph someone’s thoughts. It’s also irritating as hell. Dr. Eisenbud once told us, “I was actually fond of Ted, but at other times, believe me, I could have taken a swing at him or broken his neck. He was just a pain in the ass.” I understand.
With a beer in each hand and a fair amount flowing through his veins, Ted’s flagging determination is soon renewed. “I’m gonna get that damn target if it kills me,” he says, lighting up his tenth cigarette in as many minutes. He tries to read my mind, confidently announces that he’s picked up its contents, and draws a quick sketch. With a knowing chuckle, he shows me the scrap of paper on which are scribbled two stick figures and a box. It could represent anything, including my target picture, a photograph showing my friend and his wife walking down the aisle at their wedding. I’m impressed, but then Ted adds a third stick figure. He looks up from his work. “If I don’t get the target, the whole thing’s kaput. It’s a do or die thing,” he says dramatically. I feel uneasy. While I want to give Ted the benefit of the doubt here — he’s always professed to be a Catholic, and that third figure could be God, I think — I’m under the distinct impression that he’s been trying to read my facial expressions, not my thoughts. But Ted is no parlor room swindler. I think at the time that his abilities have been well-documented. He’s been subjected to batteries of tests, all of which have ruled out the possibility of fraud. Some of the brightest lights in academia have testified to his authenticity. And I myself am no sucker, I remind myself, though not without wincing.
At some point during the proceedings, a young woman of indeterminate age (though decades younger than our thoughtographer) wades through the sea of empty cans and seats herself next to Ted. He introduces “this broad” as Arlene, his girlfriend and “America’s next great country and western singer.” According to Ted, speaking now in a slurred though solemn voice, Arlene is also a Christian in good standing with the Lord. He slaps her butt and asks her to pray for him. Apparently heedless of any moral conflict in asking for God’s help in such an unholy enterprise, Arlene bows her head. Ted mumbles an oath to his earthier Lord and silently communes with two more beers. The deity intervenes, and soon Ted is churning out thoughtographs at a truly awe-inspiring rate. He produces more of them in the next hour than in the thirty years since he mysteriously lost his powers. Now that prayer — that most unscientific of variables — has entered the picture, I bid farewell to even the pretence of “controlled conditions.” Her entreaties to the Lord completed, Arlene uses her body to throw interference while Ted fiddles with the camera. For what seems like an eternity of awkwardness, we stare at Arlene’s back. Their barely audible murmuring is occasionally punctuated by Ted’s cursing. The distinctive whirr of the camera is never far behind, and Arlene dutifully hands us yet another thoughtograph.
With the help of beer, God, Arlene, and two increasingly inattentive witnesses, Ted’s thoughtographs are beginning to take on a definite form. “I think it’s Christ,” I say listlessly. Stifling a yawn, Dennis concurs. Our combined will to believe can no longer withstand such blatant chicanery. But the show must go on. The curtain won’t drop until the last beer is finished and Ted has either obtained our “goddamned targets” or forgotten that he’d promised to do so. As he lurches to his feet and launches into a tipsy version of “You Oughta Be In Pictures,” I open one of the few remaining beers and watch as Ted unwittingly lampoons my dark night of the soul. Before he descends into abject drunkenness, I ask him to reveal the secret of his remarkable gift. “You got to have an imagination,” he says. “And that is the gospel truth. If you don’t have an imagination, then you ain’t gonna see nothing!”
As we prepare to leave, Ted approaches us sheepishly, eyes downcast. He’d brushed off earlier attempts to discuss a particular dream that had plagued him for years — the dream of the giant camera — but now seems eager to get it off his chest. “It seemed like the damn thing was walking to me. I don’t know how to describe it. It waddled towards me like a human walking. It was one of those old-fashioned cameras. I’ll tell you one thing: it was as big as a house when it came at me. There’s times when I get scared of the damn thing. If that happened to you, wouldn’t you be scared a little bit?” It certainly seems like a confession — a heavy heart caused perhaps by a certain lightness of the fingers — but I’m in no position to grant absolution. I feel too much a party to the game.
For a couple of years after our meeting with Ted Serios, Dennis and I avoided talking about the incident. And if the subject did arise, we did our best to avoid eye contact. But now we can laugh about how two credulous friends believed they had discovered a psychic Messiah who might turn the natural world topsy-turvy, but who instead spent a day with a strange little man who, if he couldn’t exactly save our souls, could at least save us from the clockwork tedium of a world that never changed its routine.
Postscript: On March 10, 1999, Dr. Jule Eisenbud died at his home in Denver. Whatever secrets he held — or thought he held — passed away with him. During our last phone conversation with Eisenbud, in 1998, he told us, “Ted will outlive anything. He may last to the year 2500.” While speaking to Ted on the phone not long ago, he informed us that he had recently been struck by a car, but had made a complete recovery that baffled the doctors who had treated him. Ted Serios may yet defy the laws of nature.
April 23, 2011
How do you make a reputable documentary film about a lurid criminal episode from eighteenth-century England? It ain’t easy. The following is a proposal that I wrote for a film called, “The London Monster: Terror On the Streets In 1790”. Instead of focusing solely on the crimes, I fit them into a greater social and historical context. Someone liked it, because the film is now in pre-production. Full disclosure: the film has actually been in pre-production for about two years. In my defense, however, two years in film making time is equivalent to about two months for any regular project. It’s kind of like counting in dog years.
The London Monster Proposal
The essence of an era is often best evoked by examining its society’s lowest social strata. In many cases—such as Henry Mayhew’s journalistic “London Labour and the London Poor”, and the Ripper-era tabloids—the criminal proves to be the true protagonist of much of the social history that we know. Additionally, society’s treatment of the criminal often reflects the moral and political tenor of the times. Contemporary accounts of various scandals and iniquities paint a picture of certain periods that are fresh, untainted by the need for a historical intermediary. This kind of “criminal social history” can link us more intimately to the past.
Jan Bondeson’s book, “The London Monster: Terror On the Streets In 1790”, is a refreshing reminder that this type of history—especially as it concerns little-known historical episodes—is very much alive. Dr. Bondeson, author and Clinical Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Rheumatology at Cardiff University, spent five years gathering contemporary accounts, cartoons and caricatures, and a wealth of related ephemera to piece together one of the most shocking and absurd crimes ever to grace a sensationalist broadsheet.
“Lively and gripping… this medley of violence and the macabre will appeal to all general readers who cannot help being intrigued as well as disgusted by such grisly matters.”
~ from The Daily Telegraph’s review of “The London Monster”
Between the years 1788 and 1790, a serial sexual psychopath stalked the streets of London, striking fear into the hearts of society ladies (his chosen targets) and enraging the men who were powerless to stop him. During his reign of terror, the Monster cut the clothing and sliced the buttocks of fifty-eight women, all the while unleashing a torrent of profanity so offensive that many victims, upon repeating the Monster’s words verbatim on the witness stand, had to be revived with smelling salts.
“The newspapers are full of him; the playwrights entertain audiences with his exploits from the stage; the ladies are afraid of him; the mob gives every pedestrian a keen look in case he is the Monster; all the walls are covered with posters advertising a reward for the apprehension of the Monster; a fund has been opened to finance the hunt; Mrs. Smith, a society lady, has shot him with a pistol behind the ear; he disguises himself, goes about in various different guises, wounding beautiful women with specially invented instruments…”
From the diary of German naturalist Georg Forster, 12 May, 1790
While the Monster’s crimes are intrinsically foul, they were especially repugnant at a time in which the maintenance of a strict morality was essential to maintaining social order. The Monster proved a grave threat to civic harmony. The result of the attacks was what has been aptly dubbed a “moral panic”. With only a rudimentary police force in place, and a justice system that was still in its formative stages, numerous men took to the streets in a heroic attempt to apprehend the elusive villain. This outrage must end. Order must be restored. While this noble vigilante effort resulted in the arrests of numerous innocents, it ultimately turned up a probable culprit. Fingers were pointed at Rhynwick Williams, a hapless Welshman who worked at an artificial flower factory. Since the Monster often approached his victims with an ersatz nosegay concealing a hidden knife, the public was convinced that they had their man. Williams, with the bloodcurdling threats of the mob pounding in his ears, was dragged in irons to the courts of the Old Bailey.
The first of Williams’s two trials resulted in a verdict of guilty. It was a farcical affair, as unreliable witnesses took the stand, conflicting testimonies revealed gross inconsistencies in the women’s stories, and Williams’s solid alibi, despite the independent attestation of seven witnesses, failed to impress. What was worse, Williams’s own barristers were not convinced of his innocence.
Williams withered in the infamous Newgate Prison, where he was at least safe from the lynch mobs who were still demanding their own cruel brand of justice. And there he likely would have languished as a historical footnote were it not for the sudden arrival of his unexpected champion, the passionate though comically inept Theophilus Swift. Swift, a poet and duelist, went on the attack, clearly convinced that the best defense is a good offense. His boisterous battle to prove his defendant’s innocence involved pamphleteering, assailing the integrity of his upper-class victims, and launching into theatrical tirades that convinced more than a few notable citizens of his client’s innocence.
“When the Bloodhound REVENGE snuffs his prey, and FALSEHOOD fastens on the Game which PREJUDICE has started, the Law becomes the snare of Innocence, and Justice is but a gin in the hands of the unlicensed Poacher!”
~ from Theophilus Swift’s summary trial remarks
But facts—and there were many to support Williams’s innocence—proved no match for the public’s desire to convict a man at any cost. Williams was found guilty and returned to Newgate Prison, where he was to serve a six year sentence. Here, the London Monster received a more humble moniker: Prisoner No. 31.
Dr. Jan Bondeson, who also serves as the film’s Consulting Producer, is our guide and narrator. He walks us through the story as he himself discovered it, sharing contemporary news accounts, illustrations, satirical cartoons, and a wealth of miscellaneous ephemera from his personal collection to detail the crimes and their aftermath, and to provide a clear picture of how tabloid justice both reflected and fuelled the moral climate of late eighteenth-century London. In an age teeming with now-infamous rogues and murderers, we learn why Rhynwick Williams was “the most hated man in London.”
As the tale unfolds, we visit the many extant (and historically intact) locations where the drama played out. From the taverns where the vigilantes plotted their next bumbling move, to the parks and shops of St. James’s Street—the scene of some of the more egregious attacks—our expert guide unveils key plot points in the very footsteps of his subjects.
Interviews with retired judges and experts in jurisprudence offer further insight into the times and crimes, and serve as a jumping off point for colourful re-enactments, dramatic voice-over readings from actual trial transcripts, animated sequences using caricatures and other artwork from the time, and more casual interviews with members of the London public. Against the backdrop of a charity ball, modern society ladies react to the Monster’s moral misconduct. With all the crime that London has borne witness to in the intervening years, could the Monster still shock the public? Would his presence lead to yet another “moral panic”? How would today’s more organized police force react? Knowledgeable senior constables as well as bobbies on the beat offer their unique take on the matter.
Period music will be selected based on its capacity to capture the tensions of the times, particularly as that tension relates to the harrowing life of Rhynwick Williams. Shoppers stroll along modern-day St. James’s Street to the strains of Maria Hester Park’s delicate allegros, while the more somber works of composers such as John Stanley provide a striking, more ominous counterpoint. Voice-acted recitations of contemporary doggerel verse both advance the plot and lend a more immediate historical authenticity to the story:
It is of a Monster I mean to write,
Who in stabing of Ladies took great delight;
If he caught them alone in the street after dark,
In their Hips, or their Thighs, he’d be sure cut a mark.
~ from “The Monster Represented”, 1790
From the time that Rhynwick Williams was first wrestled ignominiously to the ground, he has had his defenders in what we now call “the mainstream media”. Respectable newspapers published strongly-worded editorials calling for calm, and demanding that reason win out. In the nine years since Dr. Bondeson’s book was first published, he has uncovered a wealth of hitherto unknown information about the case and presents it here for the first time: late eighteenth-century newspaper accounts, magazine articles, letters, and poems, all of which may tip the scales of justice.
The late eighteenth-century was an age teetering on the verge of modernity. It has been handed down to us as a burlesque. “The London Monster” does not argue that this is an unfair appraisal. The cast of characters alone proves the stereotype. The film does, however, provide a unique perspective on Georgian London by viewing it through the eyes of the film’s uniquely preposterous anti-hero. Whether guilty or innocent, there can be little doubt that Rhynwick Williams was a character deserving of some sympathy. From the gloomy predictability of life as a penniless pauper, he was dispatched by Fate into a world that he could not comprehend. He was in over his head to a tragic degree, perhaps through no fault of his own. And that is a theme that never grows old.
April 10, 2011
H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was an influential writer of horror and science-fiction stories during the heyday of the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. One of the more curious things about Lovecraft (and there are many, many curious things about Lovecraft) was his inability to champion his own writing. So often was he the author of his own misfortune that any sympathy one might have for him quickly gives way to incredulity. As the following letter demonstrates, Lovecraft was his own worst advocate, and it comes as no surprise that he only achieved the respect he had due after he had died and gotten out of his own damn way.
Lovecraft sent the following as a cover letter for a submission of five of his manuscripts (MSS.) to Edwin F. Baird, editor of “Weird Tales”, in April, 1923.
My dear Sir:
Having a habit of writing weird, macabre, and fantastic stories for my own amusement, I have lately been simultaneously hounded by nearly a dozen well-meaning friends into deciding to submit a few of these Gothic horrors to your newly founded periodical.
Of these the first two are probably the best. If they be unsatisfactory, the rest need not be read.
I have no idea that these things will be found suitable, for I pay no attention to the demands of commercial writing. My object is such pleasure as I can obtain from the creation of certain bizarre pictures, situations, or atmospheric effects; and the only reader I hold in mind is myself.
My models are invariably the older writers, especially Poe, who has been my favorite literary figure since early childhood. Should any miracle impel you to consider the publication of my tales, I have but one condition to offer; and that is that no excisions be made. If the tale cannot be printed as it is written, down to the very last semicolon and comma, it must gracefully accept rejection. Excision by editors is probably the one reason why no living American author has any real prose style. But I am probably safe, for my MSS. are not likely to win your consideration. “Dagon” has been rejected by Black Mask, to which I sent it under external compulsion—much as I am sending you the enclosed.
March 2, 2011
If you read my previous entry about M.R. James, you’ll know that his fascination with the ghost story began as a result of seeing a particularly disturbing Punch and Judy puppet set as a child.
Punch and Judy give me the creeps, too. More so even than clowns. The characters are nasty, even grotesque, and the narratives are frequently violent. Here is a brief description from Wikipedia: “In the British Punch and Judy show, he is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick as large as himself, which he freely uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice… “ A typical show is usually described as “anarchic”. “The tale of Punch and Judy… typically involves Punch behaving outrageously, struggling with his wife Judy and the Baby, and then triumphing in a series of encounters with the forces of law and order (and often the supernatural), interspersed with jokes and songs.”
With that in mind, here is James’s quote, from his later short story, “A Disappearance and an Appearance”. I’ll return to these unnerving caricatures when I discuss the documentary film that I’m currently working on.
“It [the dream] began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light…
I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch… But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.
The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the foot-board and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.
When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.
The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down—his back was turned to the audience—with a swift motion twitched the covering from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on the instant grew dark.”
Thanks for reading!