'Lachrymae, Chapter III: The Devil's Chessboard'
An Online Journal by Richard Stanley
(Originally appeared in R. S.' MySpace, October 31st, 2007.)
Hallow'een night. What's left of it. Still exploding in gaudy shreds and tatters about my ears. Been too much going on to even begin to explain but at least it's moving so I can't complain. Wish there were six of me or more hours in the day. Which is a way of apologizing if I have been perhaps a li'l scarce lately, but it was ever the way and there are times in this life for words and times only for action.
My time is coming and I gotta get my bags packed and start paddling if I'm gonna catch that wave. I'm headed west to the land beyond where the fire-winds blow, the black smoke turns the light all Hardware-red and Hallow'een-orange and the setting sun bleeds into ten million swimming pools a man can hide in. With luck and the grace of God (or whatever it is), the next time you hear from me I should be safely at large in California and back in the game as promised.
And I also promised a Hallow'een story.
And I will not disappoint you.
Hope you're sitting comfortably!
Chapter 1: The Devil's Chessboard [top]
Once upon a time in the Pyrenees there lived an old widow, whose daughter, Marie, is said to have met the Devil himself and struck a bargain with the Prince of Darkness.
Marie, like her mother, had the dark eyes and high colour of her heretic ancestors, but despite her beauty, she chose to remain by her mother's side, ignoring her countless suitors and remaining chaste and pure as her biblical namesake. By day, she tended the land and the diminishing herd of goats and by night, when she could afford to burn a candle, she would pour over the old books left by her deceased father in the hope of mastering the secrets of reading and writing, so that she might better her position in the world and satisfy her natural curiosity about the world outside her village.
Now times were hard, this being the latter part of the 19th century, and Marie's mother was forced to take in a lodger to help make ends meet. Being a God-fearing sort, the widow was at pains to find a tenant whose ways were as frugal and virtuous as her own, shifting through any number of candidates and finding each one wanting.
On June 1st 1885, a tall man dressed in black, a broad-brimmed hat on his head and a battered valise in one hand, dismounted from a passing coach and started on foot up the hill. Berenger Sauniere was a man of the cloth, a young priest, whose outspoken anti-Republican sermons had caused him no end of trouble in his previous parish, and had lead to his punative posting to the rural backwater of Rennes le Chateau, a constituency of fewer than forty houses.
He was just the kind of man Marie's mother had been looking for and before long, he found himself securely ensconced in the widow's austere homestead. Deciding to make the best of his reduced circumstances, Sauniere set about winning over the hearts and minds of his congregation, who found his words carried an unusual humour and emotion, as if the young firebrand really cared about what he was saying and not just going through the motions like so many priests before him.
The village church had fallen into disrepair and Sauniere set about its immediate restoration, having become aware of a small fund set aside for this purpose by the town mayor. It was barely sufficient to stabilize the dilapidated building and much of the initial work was carried out by Sauniere himself and volunteers from his congregation. One of these volunteers, a venerable gentleman with a drooping silver moustache, whose name, Captier, in our tongue means simply 'Keeper', had been bellringer and sacristan since time out of mind and took a personal interest in the matter, fussily tidying up after the workmen had left and the young priest had repaired to his lodgings for the simple evening meal prepared by Marie and her mother.
Finding the altar had been shifted off true, Master Captier stayed on after ringing the Angelus one evening to set matters right, and in the course of his solitary labour found to his surprise that the ancient column had in fact been hollow all along. There was a glass tube hidden within the cavity containing a number of jumbled, nonsensical documents apparently drafted by one of Sauniere's predecessors. The bellringer duly handed them over to the younger priest and at first thought nothing of it, but something about the parchments seemed to capture Sauniere's imagination. Marie couldn't help watching over his shoulder as he struggled to decipher them and she saw the light burning beneath his door at all hours of the night.
The actual parchments are lost to us now, and indeed might never have existed, but there are many who believe Berenger Sauniere found the key he was searching for. What is certain is that he consulted his peers on the matter - Antoine Gelis, the aging priest of Coustassa, a neighbouring village set on a hilltop overlooking the coiling River Aude, and the Reverend Boudet, who hailed from Rennes le Bains, a crumbling spa town on the far side of the plateau, where the Romans had once come to take the waters in search of a cure for leprosy.
Boudet fancied himself as a poet and an amateur archaeologist. He was also the author of an extremely strange (some would say impenetrable) book entitled LaVraie Langue Celtique ('The True Celtic Tongue'), which purports to be an academic work cataloguing of the standing strones and sundry prehistoric sites in the area, but written in a spiralling, allusive manner concealing any number of codes and punning word games, not dissimilar to the parchments themselves. Whether it was Boudet who helped find the key, or whether Sauniere was simply 'inspired', is impossible to know nor can we be certain the solution handed down to us is anything like the truth.
It is said the vital clue was found in the ancient rules of chess, and that by making a series of knight's moves, starting from a fixed point on the parchment, the following can be deciphered:
"Shepherdess no temptation peace 187 Poussin Teniers hold the key by this cross and horse of God I complete or conjure the guardian of the Daemon at noon Blue Apples"
A second parchment contains the scrambled phrase:
"To Dagobert II and to Zion belongs this treasure and he is there - dead"
Leaving all other esoteric speculation aside for a moment, it behooves me to remind the constant reader that the Sicambrians, the ancestors of the Frankish Merovingians, worshipped the mother Goddess, Cybele, as Diana of the Nine Fires or as Arduina - the Goddess of the Ardennes. The huge Diana / Arduina idol, which once towered over Carignan in northeastern France, between the black virgin sites of Orval, Avioth and Mezieres and Stenay, where the Merovingian king and saint Dagobert II was murdered in 679, points to a link between the two cults.
Dagobert II and his trepanned skull - Whatever you do, never, ever bet the devil your head!
One of Dagobert's most important acts when he accepted the throne after his Irish exile and education in Tara was to continue the ancient tradition of Gaul, the worship of the black virgin. The black virgin is really Isis, reborn as Notre Dame de Lumiere - Our Lady of Light.
The black virgin of Mauriac dates from 507 when Theodechilde, daughter of Clovis, first Christian king of the Franks, found, haloed by light in a forest clearing, a statuette guarded by a lioness and her cubs. Clovis met his queen, Clotilde, at Ferrieres, the first Christian village in Gaul, where the cult of the black virgin had its origin in AD 44. Not long after the destruction of the church and town by Attila (AD 461), the Merovingian dynasty lavishly restored and augmented the cult and its last reigning members made it their place of residence (Irrelevant admittedly, but I can't help mentioning that the Merovingian dynasty traced its own origin not to the union of Christ and Mary Magdalene, as some contemporary authors would have it, but to the somewhat more Lovecraftian legend of its original matriarch having been raped by a tendrelled sea monster named Merovee. Just thought you'd like to know.).
Whether this made any more sense to Sauniere than it does to you and me is a moot point, but he seems to have set to work with renewed vigour. Recruiting the help of the aging bellringer, he shifted the altar aside and prised loose the stone it rested on to reveal a further inscription, a pre-Christian bas relief showing a faceless knight and a woman with long hair and severere countenance gazing into a shining, ceremonial mirror. Later Master Captier claimed to have seen bones and shiny things glinting in the hollow beneath the stones, but he had no chance to examine them before the priest hastly dismissed him and locked the church doors to ensure his privacy. Later when questioned on the matter by the town mayor, Sauniere dismissed the rumours concerning the so-called 'treasure', insisting that the 'shiny things' had been worthless 'Lourdes medallions'.
Instead he dug franticly deeper. Working alone with pick and spade, Sauniere excavated a narrow flight of stone steps that lead steeply downwards into a partly flooded natural cavity beneath the plateau. In the flickering light of his guttering oil lamp he glimpsed what looked like ancient tombs carved with coiling serpents and other less familiar creatures, eight-legged like spiders or octopi. One of the sarcophagi was larger than the others, its slab sealed with curious glyphs and unfamiliar geometric markings. Using his pick as a lever the priest summoned his nerve to push the slab aside, blanching at the foul air that came from within, the dust of centuries!
Speculation was rife in the parish about Sauniere's labours and he knew he had to hurry, that it was only a matter of time before the mayor tried to intervene and in his haste he grew careless. He did not hear Marie's footfalls or sense her hooded eyes watching from the shadows, following his every move and inwardly noting every tiny, incongruous detail, as she had from the day the handsome preacher first arrived in her isolated world. Whether she confronted him with what she knew as he emerged from the vault, realizing she finally had a power over him or whether (as some of the locals believe) she was forced to come to Sauniere's rescue after he either slipped or became endangered by rising floodwaters, caused by the subterranean river's phreatic source, is hard to say just as it is impossible to know at this distance in time when they first became lovers. Certainly he had no choice but to either silence her forever or make her his partner and co-conspirator in all that followed. Pledging herself to the man she loved, Marie vowed to keep his secret come Hell or high water!
It was decided Sauniere should leave town for a while until the gossip died down, and taking leave of his baffled congregation he set out for Carcasonne and then Paris, where it is claimed he consulted with various high ranking individuals in certain fin de siecle occult lodges, in addition to purchasing a number of reproductions of paintings by Poussin and Teniers, as well as more traditional images of Saint Anthony and the Magdalene. It has never been established exactly what Berenger Sauniere found beneath the church or how he came into his sudden wealth, but on his return to his diocese, he began to spend considerable amounts of money, far more than he could have dreamed of on the stipend accorded to him as a priest, enough to make him a multi-millionaire by our standards.
His first priority was to seal the entrance to the cavity as firmly as possible and to build a high wall around the property with impregnable steel gates. Having made the area safe, he set to work in earnest redecorating the church in a flamboyant, wildly off-kilter manner as if driven by Poe's Imp of the Perverse to not only hide his crime but to simultaneously draw attention to its hiding. The chapel floor was redesigned to resemble a chessboard...
At one end, a statue of Christ peers mutely down and at the other squats the grotesque life-sized effigy of a shrieking daemon, commonly identified as Asmodeus, the guardian of Solomon's temple, who fought the arch-mage after he lost his seal and was wounded in one knee before being cast out into the wasteland. Esoterically he is the guardian and teacher of all occult knowledge.
Above the daemon which serves as a font are the words: "By this sign you will conquer him" and a bas relief depicting five angels, who appear to be making the sign of the cross, but it isn't hard even for an untrained eye to notice they are really forming a pentagram. On the wall beside them and directly above the confessional is a three-dimensional tableau of the sermon on the mount, traditional enough save that the mount is depicted as hollow and the cave beneath it filled with sacks of gold that have no place in the biblical episode they are supposed to illustrate.
A second cave appears on a bas relief on the altar itself, lovingly hand-painted by Sauniere himself. An image of the Magdalene or what might just as well be young Marie kneeling in a grotto before a grinning skull, the silhouette of what Sauniere claimed was Jerusalem visible on the distant horizon. Time forbids a fuller listing of the décor's oddities and inherent contradictions, which include any number of images of Saint Anthony, a personage known for his temptations both daemonic and sexual. Two of the scariest cherubs imaginable adorn the wooden doors above which appears the maxim:
Terribilis locus iste, as in "Terrible is this place (Genesis 28:17)", being the words Jacob spoke on awakening from his dream of the ladder. Beside this phrase appears another statue of the Magdalene, again bearing an uncanny resemblance to Sauniere's nubile 'housekeeper' and the legend: Mea domus orationis vocatibur, as in "My house is called the house of prayer" - innocent enough, unless you trace it to source where it continues: "And you have turned it into a den of thieves!"
Not that the increasingly disorientated parishioners needed to be given any further clues as to the diabolic origins of Sauniere's newfound largesse. The secretive priest and his young neophyte had been spotted working alone at night in the graveyard, digging up and moving some marker stones while obliterating the inscriptions on others, seemingly leaving signs to draw attention to themselves while deliberately hiding other already existing clues, a seemingly pathological activity all too familiar to long term aficionados of the esoteric. Graverobbing and necromancy were the least of the accusations made against Sauniere, initially behind his back and later more openly when the enraged mayor demanded an official investigation from his superiors in Carcasonne.
The increasingly physical relationship between Sauniere and Marie had become an open secret and she publicly disported herself wearing jewellery and expensive, daringly cut gowns that would have put her mother to shame, had not the good widow passed suddenly that spring just after the priest's return. The causes are obscure, but she at least died in her own bed with her beloved daughter at her side and Sauniere himself in attendance to hear her confession. Nor was she the only one to have lost her life that season under less than certain circumstances...
Sauniere had severed all ties with his fellow priests, Henri Boudet and Antoine Gelis, who was said to have become irrationally frightened of something he either couldn't comprehend or dared not explain to his friends and family. By the spring of 1893 he had become so paranoid that he refused to leave his rectory and barred the door to all comers, save his niece and nephew who brought his food and tended to the laundry. Despite his precautions someone managed to get to him. There was a fierce struggle and Gelis was bludgeoned with a poker before being finished off with an axe, while apparently trying to crawl to the window to scream for help. When the local authorities finally dared to enter the house, they found the elderly priest's mutilated remains layed out in a strange, reputedly ritualistic manner. If Berenger Sauniere was in any ways implicated in these events then he showed no sign of attempting to flee the scene of his crimes. If anything, he appeared to be digging in, commissioning a magnificent new residence facing the church, where he intended to live with Marie as man and wife.
Sauniere (right) and Marie (left) in the gardens of the Villa Bethania.
No expense was spared in furnishing the weird art deco mansion that he named the Villa Bethania, its interiors decorated by gold leaf, swirling mosaics and distinctly psychedelic velvet wallpaper. The Villa's windows and those of the greenhouse that abutted it were fashioned from a deep, lustrous stained glass that caught the Meridional sunshine, and filled the fallen priest's domain with every incandescent shade of red and deep pools of midnight blue that seemed to remain cool even in summertime... But this was only the beginning of his grand design.
Blueprints of the Villa Bethania showing the underlying pentagonal structure of Sauniere's design
As the parallel investigations by the civil and clerical authorities gathered pace, Sauniere contrived to enclose his house, the church, graveyard and a good part of the plateau with a gothic belvedere surmounted by a strange high tower he christened the 'Tour Magdala', and which was to serve as the repository for his burdgeoning library. The tower commanded an extraordinary 360 degree view of the plateau and surrounding valleys and foothills, its narrow windows, patterned after the 'arrow slits' in the abandoned heretic castles faced to the west and at the far end of the belvedere, inclined towards the rising sun, he raised a second tower, a tower of glass whose myriad panes were of the same strange hue as the others already installed in the villa itself. As much work seemed to be going on beneath the ground as above it, and the walled garden became a veritable paradise with any number of rare, exotic species nurtured by an elaborate system of subterranean aqueducts, its orchards bearing strange fruit such as the locals had never seen before.
The Belvedere - 5.18 pm, October 8 1992 - Tour de Verre
Shortly after the turn of the century, the incoming bishop of Carcasonne, Lord Bishop De Beausejour, finally succeeded in having Sauniere removed from his position and barred from holding mass in the village church. Engaging the best lawyers he could afford, the rogue preacher blithely ignored his incipient excommunication and continued to hold services in his greenhouse, where he had a statue of Saint Michael erected amidst the prehistoric ferns and orchids. Retreating into their private world Marie and her lover entertained lavishly and received many important guests from Paris and Rome in grand style, plying them with rum imported from Martinique, the lights blazing all night in the Tour Magdala, which had been equipped with scientific novelties, telescopes, microscopes and purportedly a curious 'magic lantern', akin to an early motion picture projector, with which Sauniere hoped to illustrate his hellfire 'sermons'. Among their guests were said to be several members of the Hapsburg dynasty, the legendary chanteuse Emma Calve and two popular authors of the period, Maurice le Blanc and Jules Verne, who frequently holidayed in the area and whose novels contain tantalising allusions to the miasma of myths and rumours that had already begun to accrue about the priest's beleagured domain.
Two of the Verne titles in question are Le Testament d'un Excentrique and Clovis Dardentor. The latter concerns a byzantine conspiracy surrounding a lost treasure, none other than the gold of Clovis. The story is set on a ship under the command of the heroic Captain Bugarach - seemingly a reference to the farm where Verne spent his holidays, 'Les Capitains', on the slopes of the nearby Mount Bugarach, a dormant volcano in the vicinity of Rennes les Bains. As far as I know neither title has ever been translated into English. The continuing seismic activity would tend to indicate the volcano is far from extinct and tectonic forces have been held to blame for some of the freaky electro-magnetic activity including ball-lightning and other unidentified atmospheric phenomena. The bald mountain was central to local faery lore in days of old and in more recent times has been dubbed a 'window area' by a growing community of 'contactees' and concerned UFOlogists.
Mount Bugarach - the view from Verne's farm - October 31st, 1992
While Sauniere couldn't halt the continuing investigation into the mysterious source of his newfound wealth, he was able to deploy sufficient legal muscle to slow the enquiries to a snail's pace and by the onset of the Great War in 1914, the situation remained unchanged, the church remained locked and the disgraced cleric and his lover remained firmly ensconced in the rambling hilltop estate, presiding over a divided village.
An entire generation perished on the battlefields of western Europe and while there was scarcely a household not touched by tragedy, the locals were unable to turn to their minister or attend official services as Sauniere's legal action effectively blocked the appointment of any new priest to the stricken parish. Be it guilt over ill-gotten gains or the sheer stultifying weight of the mounting bureaucracy that clogged his study, but the consequences of the rebel cleric's secrecy exacted a heavy toll. He continued his obsessive construction work as if racing against time, spending the initial years of the war gathering rocks from the bed of the River of Colours and carrying them one basketload at a time up the steep slope of the plateau to construct a 'Lourdes grotto' outside the disused church, insisting that one day the village would become a place of pilgrimage.
At the centre of his handmade cavern he erected another image of the Magdalene, this time resting on the hollow altar column in which the coded documents were said to have been found. In the base of the column he enscribed two simple, but telling words: "Penitence! Penitence!"
In December 1916, while still apparently in good health, Sauniere visited the local undertaker and commissioned a bespoke coffin to be made according to his measurements. He was a tall man with the broad shoulders and barrel chest of a southerner and he wanted to make certain the box would be an easy fit. Shortly there afterwards he suffered the symptoms of a massive stroke, although there were some who, for obvious reasons, suspected poisoning.
A minister was hastily summoned from the neighbouring parish to hear the dying man's confession and administer the last rites, and it is said he departed Sauniere's bedroom ashen-faced at what he heard and according to popular account, 'never smiled again'. Whether it is true that all the dogs began to howl in the village or that Marie really muttered "Thank God it's over", as Sauniere breathed his last is hard to say. Certainly if she did utter those words, she was hopelessly misguided!
The death certificate filed in Caracasonne records that on the 17th of January 1917, a date commemorated in the locality as 'Blue Apple Day', Berenger Sauniere, the former priest of Rennes les Chateau, met his maker. The following morning his body was moved to the greenhouse, where it was propped up in an old armchair and exhibited to a procession of anonymous mourners, who were said to have come from as far afield as Paris to pay their respects. Legend has it that each one took a tassel from the hem of his gown as they passed by way of a keepsake.
It was snowing and the ground was frozen, making hard work for Master Captier's eldest son, who had taken over his father's duties, maintaining the locked chapel and the tiny graveyard. How many came to grieve and how many others gathered out of morbid curiosity is a moot point, but those who had expected the secret of Sauniere's wealth to finally become public knowledge were in for an unpleasant surprise. When the contents of his will were divulged, it became clear the rogue cleric had died a pauper, his only income being the meagre stipend accorded to him as village priest. The Villa Bethany, the Tour Magdala, the domain it commanded and the seemingly bottomless bank account that paid for its upkeep had either been signed over or perhaps had always been registered in the name of Sauniere's loyal 'house keeper' Marie Denarnaud, who remained good to her promise and kept her lips stubbornly sealed.
Marie lived on in the big house without servants or family, feared and ostracized by the other villagers, trusting no-one, the garden growing wild, the greenhouses turning into a jungle as one year faded into another and a second war came and went. Set aside from the great events that convulsed Europe, life continued much as it always did in Rennes until the collapse of the Vichy government in 1945, and the decision to reissue the Franc note in order to catch out those who had directly profited from the fascist regime. Unable or perhaps unwilling to explain the source of her cashflow, Marie found herself impoverished overnight and there are stories, doubtless apocryphal, of the aging spinster raking bundles of useless currency together and burning them as if they were leaves in her back garden.
1941: Marie Denarnaud in her declining years (left) with unnamed companion.
Looking ruin in the face, Marie confided in a recently widowed businessman from Paris, Noel Corbu, that if he bought the Villa and the domain and promised to look after her until the end of her days, she would tell him "a secret that will make you both rich and immensely powerful". Noel wasn't a total sucker. He did his homework first before signing on the dotted line but in the end, the mystery drew him in to its malignant embrace as surely as a black hole draws in light.
After the elaborate negotiations were completed and the contracts finally exchanged, Marie moved back into her former lodgings, leaving the domain to its new tenants, Noel and his young daughter, Claire, who was little more than a child at the time. Any expectations on the businessman's behalf that he might be the one to finally penetrate the enigma were cruelly dispelled when on the anniversary of Sauniere's demise, Marie suffered identical symptoms, a sudden, violent stroke which left her paralyzed and more crucially incapable of speech. It is hard to imagine what her final days must have been like as Noel Corbu tried in vain to wrest, tempt, threaten or cajole the secret from her, but at least she died in her mother's bed surrounded by those who cared for her well-being, even if it was for all the wrong reasons. Marie Denarnaud-Barthelemy, to give her full family name as it appears on the headstone, passed on January 29th 1953, without uttering so much as a single coherent syllable.
Noel Corbu with Sauniere's hand-painted altar piece
Some think sheer frustration alone drove Noel to drink or perhaps drove him, well, a little funny. Others believe he was always a little strange to begin with. Like attracts like and the house had found him after all, not the other way round. Not knowing where to dig or even what he was digging for, he sank arbitrary shafts and started on the network of tunnels that honeycomb the plateau to this day, re-opened and reworked by every successive generation to have followed in his hapless steps. Of course he never found a dime but one more piece of the jigsaw did come to light on his shift. In March 1956, the skeletal remains of three men were found buried in the Villa's flowerbed. All three were aged between thirty and forty and had apparently suffered multiple gunshot wounds. The gendarmes were summoned and an inquest opened but no conclusions were handed down. The bodies were never identified and regardless of whether it was local score settling or, as some have suggested, a showdown with a trio of hired assassins, it does tend to indicate not only Marie and Sauniere's skill in defending themselves but the lengths they were prepared to go to in order to guard their secret.
Noel Corbu was killed in a freak accident on May 20th 1968, when his car left the road while apparently trying to return home to the plateau where his daughter, Claire, awaited him. While speculation over the circumstances of the 'accident' continues, it remains a matter of considerable delicacy and I am loathe to discuss the details further in so public a forum. Less than a month later, Abbe Boyer, Vicar General in the Carcasonne diocese and a motivating force behind the ongoing internal enquiry into the Rennes enigma, was himself the victim of an identical accident when his car was apparently forced off the road by persons unknown near a spot on the Carcasonne-Andorra highway known locally as 'the Devil's Bridge'.
After that the trail appeared to go cold. At least for a while...
Chapter 2: All Roads lead to Rennes [top]
"When I drew nigh to the nameless city I knew it was accursed!"
- H.P. Lovecraft
They say the devil makes work for idle hands and by the mid-nineties mine were more idle than they should have been. The music video work dried up as the grungy eighties were consigned to the toxic waste drum of history along with midnight movies, long hair, leather and psychedelic drugs; swept away by a rising tide of amphetamines, tracksuit tops and consumer-friendly new Labour bling. River City was getting stale and when Channel Four Television's religion department offered me a suitable mission, I jumped at the chance without the slightest comprehension of where the chain of events would ultimately lead me.
Channel Four had recently broadcast a hit show entitled The Real Jurassic Park, concerning efforts to extract dinosaur DNA from amber and were looking at a potential follow-up, The Real Raiders of the Lost Ark, for a similar child-friendly early evening slot. There is no point recapitulating the details of the Spielberg film here. In essence, Lawrence Kasdan's script, a homage to Saturday matinees of yesteryear, makes good use of two very separate strands of popular mythology: the survival of an ancient, supernatural or religious relic into the modern day and the continuing web of rumours and dangerous fallacies surrounding the very real activities of the Ahnenerbe SS and the archeological work conducted by their Race and Settlement Department under the command of deranged Brigadefuhrer Karl Maria Wiligut-Weisthor.
There is no evidence to suggest Adolf Hitler had the slightest interest in occultism, or that Weisthor or any other member of the Nazi regime ever actively pursued the ark of the Covenant, or the equally fabulous 'Spear of Destiny', linked to the developing post-war mythos by the fabrications of 'pseudo-historian' Trevor Ravenscroft. While these legends may have a symbolic value central to the Judeo-Christian myth, they have little relevance to the aggressive brand of Aryan neo-paganism adhered to by Weisthor and his sinister comrades.
The Ethiopian Jews claim to this day to have the Ark under lock and key in Axum, but in truth there is almost no archeological evidence to suggest that the Temple of Solomon itself existed outside popular folklore, let alone its contents. Even if the Ark, the carrying case supposed to hold the ten commandments, the literal word of God brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai, or something like it had existed, its wooden frame would surely have turned to dust over the long millenia, but bolstered by fool's courage and an open tab to cover my costs, I gamely set out to pick up the trail.
The temple of Solomon is believed to have been destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman general Titus and its treasures borne back to the eternal city to swell the coffers of his father, the Emperor Vespasian. A triumphal arch in Rome records the arrival of the Ark along with the other relics, the sacred Menora and the Cup of Abraham, a chalice carved by master Afghan craftsmen to consecrate the temple the prophet built in Ur of the Chaldees and identified by some as the mythic Holy Grail of medieval chivalry.
Rome was itself looted in 410 AD by the Visigoths under their great king Alaric, who in turn is said to have carried the treasure back to his capital, the lost city of Rhedae, whose ruins apparently lay beneath the streets of the tiny Pyrenean town of Rennes le Chateau, the confluence point of all great 20th century conspiracy theories.
Author Gerard de Sede has set the ball rolling with the publication of two almost identical accounts of the affair, L'or de Rennes (The Gold of Rennes) and Le Tresor Maudit de Rennes le Chateau (The Cursed Treasure of Rennes Le Chateau) (both 1967), which had in turn formed the basis of a hit BBC documentary The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) and the accompanying international bestseller authored by its principal researchers Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. Taking off from the known facts of the case Holy Blood unpacks a bizarre and highly unlikely conspiracy theory predicated by the notion that Christ married Mary Magdalene and had issue, a sacred bloodline that survives to this day protected by a typically shadowy secret society known as the Priory of Sion, dedicated to the preservation of the 'Sang Real', or royal blood, that the 'Sangraal' or Holy Grail was said to represent, a lineage notoriously said to include such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and the filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau.
The documentary argues that Saunier uncovered proof of this bloodline and was paid to keep his silence by the Priory and its cohorts. It is well known that the three young researchers were deliberately mislead by a series of forged documents lodged in the Bibliotheque Nationale by Pierre Plantard, a right-wing fantacist connected to an obscure society dedicated to the creation of a United States of Europe named the Ordre Alpha-Galates and who seems to have fabricated the papertrail in order to imply that he was the descendent of the son of God as well as rightful heir to the throne of France.
Pierre Plantard de Sinclair
Whether Plantard had genuine delusions of grandeur or if it was simply a surrealist joke that got out of hand is hard to tell, but something in the iconoclasm of the conceit seemed to strike a chord with the public. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail spawned a slew of sequels and spin offs, teasing out this slender premise to ever more ridiculous extremes including The Messianic Legacy, the original trio's official follow-up, and The Tomb of God (Richard Andrews and Paul Schellenberger, 1996), which by now argued that Saunier not only discovered proof of Christ's lineage, but that the church concealed the literal body of Christ itself (presumably along with the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail).
Deranged surveyor Donald Wood took the whole thing to a different level with Genisis and its equally bizarre sequel Geneset, which introduced the rather more radical notion that Saunier had stumbled upon some sort of space-time portal to another world, linking Rennes to the then-current UFO craze and arguing that clues hidden in the natural proportions and 'sacred geometry' of the surrounding landscape indicated not only the intervention of extraterrestrial (or fourth dimensional) beings, but that mankind itself was the product of alien (essentially Lovecraftian) Gods mucking about with recombinant DNA.
Saucer cults flocked to the area from the late seventies onwards, setting up 24 hour 'sky watches' from the surrounding hills, laying out UFO-friendly pictograms in the scrub and formulating elaborate 'landing protocols' in the hope that someone might stop by to pick them up. This, however, never happened and by the close of the century the number of reported 'sightings' had thinned to a trickle. The 'space-time portal' idea stuck around however, recycled by Henry Lincoln's opportunistic and all but incomprehensible entry The Holy Place, the 'Rennes Pentagram' first documented by Woods providing the jumping off spot for any number of geomancers and sacred cartographers drawn by the admittedly freaky topography.
There is an enduring folkloric belief that if you zero the clock on your mileage before driving the points of the pentagram, you will find it covers a grand total of 666km. Apparently at some point the Devil went metric. The prehistoric standing stones that dot the area and the natural geological formations do seem to be aligned with unaccountable precision (something hinted at by Boudet in his original ur-text La Vraie Langue Celtique or The Cromlechs of Rennes le Bains), but by the mid-nineties the matter of Saunier and what lay beneath the church itself seemed to have been largely forgotten.
Hardly surprising since there were no bars, restaurants, hotels or other inducements to welcome outsiders and only one sign in the world, at the very base of the plateau itself, that bears the village's name.
Although a short hop from Cannes and the beaches of the Cote d'Azur, Rennes might as well be living in another world. If you slip a copy of Damien: Omen II into your CD player as you pull out of the rental lot at Carcasonne airport you should, if you crank the volume a li'l, reach the outer edge of the pentagram by approximately track six ('Fallen Temple'). South of Carcasonne, the trees press slowly closer, branches meeting over the narrowing blacktop as you follow the winding course of the Aude towards its headwaters.
It is only when you pass that one signpost and start up the plateau itself that the rustic setting begins to take on a more sinister, otherworldly property. Just what exactly is the matter with Rennes is hard to finger immediately. It's narrow streets are as quiet as any other Merdianal backwater, but that odd sensation of being watched never quite leaves you and there is perhaps something a little too furtive in the manner of the locals to quite set the visitor's mind at ease.
By track ten on a good day you should be parked up beside the Tour Magdala and on a clear day in Rennes you can see, if not forever, then as near as dammit, the smudgy blue foot hills rolling away and away on all sides, which is why the visi-goths chose it as their capital in the first place. The more jarring details don't become apparent until you've paused long enough to catch your breath. The weird sun dial / clock on the tower above the parking lot that never seems to tell any recognizable earthly time, the big, white Pyrenean mountain dog that looks more like a wolf loitering in the shade of the gothic belvedere, the pentagrams on the manhole covers and the only store in town is of course a bookshop rather than a grocers, whose sign reads 'Over 666 titles in stock'. By the time you catch sight of the church and those famous words 'Terrible is this place' above it's door, it is difficult for even the most unobservant pilgrim not to conclude that there is something, well, a li'l wrong with Rennes.
At that time, being the early nineties, Noel Corbu's successor, Henri Buthion, had only recently disappeared, leaving the Villa Bethany in disarray. Buthion's attempts to continue the obsessive tunnelling begun by his predecessor and his later recourse to dynamite to try and break through to the vaults below had destabilized the presbytery and cracked the chapel's starry dome. The domain lay abandoned, gardens and greenhouses neglected and overgrown and in the noontide silence of Saunier's garden I reflected on Poe's words from The Fall of the House of Usher:
"I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all."
Although I had come to the Pyrenees with the intention of channelling the spirit of Indiana Jones, it was another cinematic tradition that obtained. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Argento's 'Three Mothers' trilogy or indeed the works of his mentor, would have been struck at once by the odd familiarity of Saunier's art-deco diabolism, the fading velvet wallpaper that would have been right at home in the 'Markos Tanz Akadamie' and the primary coloured shards of glass that still clung to the frames of those dilapidated greenhouses, filling the sepulchral chambers with deep, lustrous reds, blues and ambers. The plethora of Catholic icons, tortured, sorrowful virgins and stricken, guilt ridden Magdalenes all but absorbed into the creeping foliage put me in mind of Argento's mentor, the great Mario Bava.
Villa Bethania - 6.15 pm, October 7th, 1992 - The Greenhouse
I, Vampiri/ The Devil's Commandment (1956) is the first identifiable Italian horror film and the source from which all others flow. The original director, Riccardo Freda, was a former member of the Italian Board of Film Censors, who decided to emulate the commercially successful American imports by producing a horror film of his own. When he lost interest in the project the young Bava, who had been recruited to work on the special effects, took over the project and made it his own. Bava's dad had apparently manufactured lifelike mannequins for window displays and the director's continuing necrophilic tendency to objectify his leads as if they were living dolls contributes a uniquely creepy frisson to his more powerful works.
After salvaging a second Mexican-bound Lovecraft pastiche Caltiki - The Immortal Monster (1959) begun by his mentor, Riccardo Freda, the young Bava embarked on an extraordinary solo career with Black Sunday (1960) was loosely inspired by Gogol's VIY, while The Evil Eye (1962) is arguably the first identifiable giallo, a genre Bava continued to hone in Blood and Black Lace (1964), in which a masked assassin cuts a cathartic swathe through an array of mannequin-like fashion models setting the template for modern 'stalk and slash' in the process.
Boris Karloff turns in one of his best performances in Black Sabbath (1963), but apparently caught the cold that killed him in the process of completing the final shot subsequently shorn from American release prints. Christopher Lee got nasty in The Whip and the Body, aka The Whip and the Flesh, aka What? (1963), while Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966) aka Curse of the Dead (UK) aka Curse of the Living Dead (US) aka The Dead Eyes of Dr. Dracula (Germany) may well be the genre's masterpiece. The plot (concerning a cursed aristocratic family at the centre of a series of supernaturally motivated murders) merely serves as an excuse to crank up the dry ice, stirring the frozen archetypes into a vortice of winding alleyways and Kafkaesque dreamscapes exemplified in a sequence where the protagonist literally pursues himself through a series of identical chambers, slowly but surely gaining ground only to find he has typically gained nothing at all.
If there was one title that reminded me most of Rennes and its demented denizens, it was Bava's 1972 funeral fest Lisa and the Devil aka The Devil and the Dead, that had caught me unaware one Hallow'een under the influence of a particularly good crop of magic mushrooms and simply knocked me for six. To say it tickled my funny bone would be putting it mildly. I couldn't get up off the floor and every time I tried another off kilter moment or effortless non-sequeter would knock me straight back on my ass again. Elke Sommer plays a dazed blonde, who strays from a tour group viewing a fresco showing the devil carrying away the dead to meander through a string of encounters with a ghostly aristocratic family and their daemonic servant, Leandro, played by Telly Savalas, complete with lollipop, kid gloves and a fetching range of quasi-Masonic accessories.
"Neither glue nor splintered heads can stop the funeral..."
Telly Savalas improvises to a captive audience in Lisa and the Devil.
The entire film seems unstuck in time and place with names, identities and relationships fluctuating alarmingly but as all are apparently dead or damned to begin with, this seems quite in keeping with the nightmare logic of the plot. Pure essence of Rennes. How else could I put it? You'd have to be there.
At times it appears the cast are simply making it up as they go along and one can only imagine the director's imperfect grasp of English allowed some of the weirdest dialogue in cinema history, including mangled chunks of Jim Morrison and even the Rice Crispies jingle to find its way into the script. Apparently, Bava's dad made mannequins for shop windows and here the director's tendency to portray human beings as living dolls reaches it's lunatic apogee in one of the most overblown acts of sustained necrophilia ever inflincted on the viewing public. Bracing stuff. Too bracing for the producers, who cut the film by nearly half it's length and shot additional scenes involving a bewildered exorcist played by Robert Alda, who strives to make sense of the diabolic shambles released in some territories as House of Exorcism and credited to fictional director 'Micky Lion'. The original, while admittedly an acquired taste, remains unsurpassed in all it's baffling glory.
Although at times quite evidently off his trolley, Bava's work innovated many of the stylistic conventions 'borrowed' by American franchises such as Friday the 13th and Scream as well as defining the genre in which his successors, Dario Argento and the late, lamented Lucio Fulci were to distinguish themselves. Daria Nicolodi starred in Bava's last completed work as a director, Shock (1977), aka Shock Transfer Suspense Hypnos, and his final credit was as special effects creator of il maestro's Inferno (1980).
Dario returned the favour by producing Mario Bava's son Lamberto's early work, 'DEMONS' (1985) and its trashy, throw-away sequel, in which a horror film invades the life of the audience members before bringing about some form of daemonic apocalypse.
To some extent, Lucio Fulci's notorious gothic trilogy City of the Living Dead (1980), aka The Gates of Hell, The Beyond (1981) aka Seven Doors of Death (US), aka The Seven Doors of Hell, aka Eibon, Ghost Town of the Living Dead (Germany) and The House by the Cemetery (1981) could be seen as an excremental Freudian reposte to Argento's essentially Jungian work, a maggot-ridden return of the repressed replete in the latter entry, with a grotesque flesh-eating thing in the basement named 'Freudstein', who speaks in a sublimely creepy child-like whimper.
Apart from the by now habitual setting of a 'large house with many rooms' and the inevitable flooded basement, Fulci's works display a Bavaesque disregard for conventional logic and share a common mythology courtesy of screenwriter Dardano Sachetti, who also contributed to the Amityville cycle. The lunatic events in The Beyond from the swarm of face-eating spiders in the library to the blind girl ravaged by her own seeing-eye dog are justified by the simple, catch all expedient that "this house, this whole town is built over one of the seven dreaded gateways of evil!" Which brings us neatly back to Rennes.
By the end of the 20th century, years of speculation had left the natives riven, brother divided against brother, any fragile sense of community that might have existed overwhelmed by an influx of treasure hunters, occultists, cranks and conspirators. As the various 'revelations' and increasingly far-fetched theories as to what lay beneath the church tended to be mutually exclusive, it followed that Rennes itself remained something of a black spot in consensus reality, where no two people seemed to agree as to what the hell was really happening.
President Mitterand had visited the church in person a few years previously, before returning to Paris to enable a law that made the use of metal detectors and ultra-sound equipment illegal in the area, thus forestalling an alleged bid by the Vatican to conduct a scan of the plateau, as well as slowing the efforts of the various human moles and Indiana Jones-wannabes who continued to tunnel incessantly through the crumbling bedrock.
The basic 'Rennes story', the essential facts and the level you received them on, was by the early nineties very much determined by who you spoke to first or were seen with in public. Such was the degree of mistrust and creeping paranoia in the hamlet that after generations of internecine rivalry an unspoken protocol dictated that the moment a newcomer was spotted conniving with another resident or percieved to be aligned with whatever group or society they represented, all other doors were closed to them making it hard to penetrate more than one layer of the onion at a time without inordinate subterfuge and a deep knowledge of local politics. Hence it was to my good fortune as a 'Rennes virgin', blissfully unaware of all this gothic game playing, that the very first individual I spoke to on arrival in the village turned out to be the best possible person I could have chosen when it came to unpacking the zone's multifold mysteries over the months and years that followed.
Celia Brooke was a striking-looking redhead with soaring cheekbones and patient, long-suffering blue green eyes as deep and kind as the rock pools in the River of Colours itself. At that time the church was still closed to the public, in desperate need of repair and Celia was helping out in the small museum connected to the disused rectory. I sought her out, taking her to be the curator and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was not only English but seemed to take an immediate shine to me. I don't know why she trusted me the way she did rather than instantly dismissing me as another treasure hunter and the all round esoteric opportunist that I was. Maybe she was just bored that day and grateful for the chance to shoot the breeze with someone from the outside world. She was certainly a big fish in a very small pond but what a weird and 'wonder full' pond it was!
Celia was the granddaughter of H.H. The Dayang Muda of Sarawak, Gladys Brooke, who had been evicted from the family's island fiefdom by the Japanese and cast adrift in post-war London society. Before becoming guardian of Saunier's domain Celia had rehearsed her role as gatekeeper, first as a hat check girl in London's Groucho Club, then as first secretary to the Rolling Stones fan club, acting as Mick Jagger's official signature and autographing thousands of photographs on his behalf, a legal wrinkle that had continued to keep her in pocket for many years.
Celia had flirted with various belief systems and their attendant gurus over the years and had sojourned in Afghanistan and Gilgit in the early seventies before marrying the grandson of Sufi master musician Hazrat Inayat Khan and moving to the south, where they had purchased a tract of land on a hilltop overlooking the Rennes plateau following a vision described to them by aging Nazi seer Joseph Geibel, who had insisted the young heir to the throne of Sarawak would one day 'find treasure there'. Sadly, Celia's marriage had gone south too although she continued to live alone on the hilltop with her daughter Grace in 'La Metairie Blanche', the extraordinary white house she had constructed over the years with her own hands and the help of the locals.
Walking in the woods near 'La Metairie' in the mid-eighties Celia had found an ancient gold coin washed free by the spring rains. Following the run off she dug slowly back into the mulch to unearth a hoard of Carolingian coins just as Geibel had foretold, thus becoming one of the only people to have ever found actual treasure in Rennes. By the early nineties most of the hoard had been smuggled out of the country, but at least three of the coins can be seen in the local museum to this very day.
Celia had begun to spend more time in the village and had started helping out in the abandoned domain, where the verger and official grave digger, Marcel Captier, had taken her under his protective wing. Marcel was of course the grandson of Saunier's bellringer, the man who had uncovered the 'Rennes documents' in the first place, and wore on a steel ring on his belt the 'sixty-eight keys to Rennes le Chateau', which he would deliberately rattle from time to time as he showed me around the dilapidated estate as if to remind me of the dreadful responsibilities incumbent in his dynastic role of 'keeper'. The pressure weighed all too heavily on his remaining family and by the early nineties had driven a wedge between him and his brother, Antoine, who had married Claire Corbu and contested him for control of the domain.
The elect visit the Tour Magdala
"Twenty-two steps", muttered Marcel, tapping the tip of his shoe numinously against the topmost flight as we emerged onto the roof of the Tour Magdala, his eyes taking in the familiar panorama, the vista of surrounding hilltops that defined the limits of his strange, intensely private world. Everything in Rennes seemed to be precisely patterned, aligned and innumerated according to some elusive, diabolic logic, which, like a bad acid trip, kept threatening to make some kind of sense without ever quite dropping the other shoe.
A flight of steps exists on the hillside several hundred metres beneath the Tour Magdala and with recourse to a laser or theodolite, a straight line can be drawn through the tower's westward facing window (modelled on the 'arrow slits' found in the ruined 12th century castles that dot the area) using the second set of steps as they were the sites at the tip of a gun barrel. If the line is continued across the valley below, it clearly indicates the mouth of a cave on the far side of the River of Colours, one grotto amongst many in an area honeycombed with similar limestone formations.
Knowledge is power and as any secret society worth its salt knows you can't just give away a halfway decent secret but you can't hold it back forever, otherwise the rubes get bored and drift away. Instead to maintain ones precarious position in the invisible hierarchy, the secret needs to trailed every so often, just enough to keep the average sucker/initiate hooked, a practise the denizens of Rennes had perfected to a fine art. A kind of esoteric flirting, stonewalling and gliding around direct questions while casually dropping hints of a larger truth but giving away only enough trivia to keep their marks coming back for more. It is the job of an impartial investigator to weigh the evidence accordingly and decide for themselves who, if anyone, really holds the key.
I met Jean-Pierre Montes, a self-proclaimed expert in 'secret societies', who spoke at length about the Priory of Sion and looking me in the eye when he saw I was in danger of nodding off tossed in the immortal remark: "Hah! If you could only learn who held the patent on the calorimeter, then you would know the true identity of Fulcanelli, the master alchemist!" Not that he had mentioned the 'F' word previously either. It just popped in from nowhere to make certain he kept my attention and I remember trying very hard not to crack up laughing there and then. Harder still to keep a straight face with the grizzled Jean de Rigney, who lived alone in his old wooden farmhouse at the source of the 'Salz', the saline river that emerged from the ancient salt mines in the woods east of Sougraigne.
De Rigney believed that there was an underground UFO base beneath his property and had made countless recordings of the aliens by connecting microphones to his floorboards and was keen to play us his weird tapes filled with hissing, sputtering semi-human voices right out of The Whisperer in Darkness. I rationalized it as a variant on common or garden electronic voice phenomena (E.V.P.) and tried not to think about it, but it was all too easy to imagine Lovecraft's Old Ones winging their way over those domed, densely wooded hills. Later I took samples of river water from the stream behind the farm house, which we found to be mildly radioactive, possibly a factor in the legendary curative properties of the springs at Rennes le Bains.
I met Elizabeth van Buren, great-great-granddaughter of the eighth American president, who had recently printed a commentary entitled Finis Gloria Mundi, which she claimed was an esoteric unveiling of Fulcanelli's third 'lost' manuscript The Overture to the Invisible, and who seemed to honestly believe that the immortal Count Sainte Germaine and several other players in the mystery were in fact good ol' fashioned vampires after all. She had issues with extraterrestrials too, this being all the rage back then and had decoded all the heavenly constellations hidden in the local ordinance survey map, what she called the 'Rennes Zodiac'.
Elizabeth had recently been found weeping and crawling on all fours in the bottom of a neighbouring garden having apparently saved the world by driving a metal stake into the 'Achilles' heel of the Great Bear', an emotionally cathartic act of earth acupuncture. There were rumours she had suffered a nervous breakdown but rather than bow out quietly, she had come back strong, deciding that she was in fact the reincarnation of Joan of Arc and showing up on the anniversary of Sauniere's death (known locally as 'Blue Apple Day' for reasons I will return to later), dressed in full armour to demand admittance to the church and the vaults below. Celia had managed to get her sword away from her and finessed the situation admirably, showing good humour in the face of the yearly influx of shadowy adherents congregate in the chapel to mark this weirdest of weird anniversaries.
At least Elizabeth had the breeding and deep pockets to give her fancies full flight and somehow stay at large, buying and restoring the Visi-Goth tower at the base of the plateau and planting thousands of roses in designs that could only be seen from the air as a signal to her space brothers. Most of the flowers died within weeks in the thin soil despite Celia's efforts to water them, although other weeds had taken route in the towers shadow that helped put proceedings in their proper perspective.
A sign on the road into the valley proclaimed 'F***K' in bold, block capitals and a few feet further back from the trail I came across a vast waist-high field of marijuana plants in the midst of which stood a single pole bearing a box marked 'aide humanitaire' - a highly egalitarian 'take as much as you need and leave what you see fit' deal that suited me to a tee. I suspect this had something to do with a local wildman named Danielle, who lived in wheeless bus partly buried in the hillside along with his sunstruck girlfriend and about a hundred badly diseased cats.
Danielle looked just like Charlie Manson, only shorter, and spoke like Charlie too, but in French, which leant an additional opacity to his crypto-astrological banter. His main source of revenue was drawing treasure maps, which he massproduced in their hundreds and sold at the roadside to curious tourists in between decorating the trees with the countless tiny swastikas he made from broken mirrors, bones and barbie-doll legs.
Granted, it helps to get a certain perspective on proceedings and getting out into the boonies did just that. It was only when I surveyed the area by horse or took those long walks with Marcel and his huge white Pyrenean mountain dog, Dagobert, that I began to notice the extent of the underlying earthworks, the outlines of ancient roads, houses and crumbling dry stone walls reminiscent of Zimbabwe ruins and possibly as old if not older, running for mile upon mile beneath the scrub, the remains of Rhedae, the capital of the Visi-Goths presumably, although it appeared distinctly Lovecraftian at first glance.
Marcel professed disinterest in the treasure and deflected direct discussion of the church by insisting that the real problem with Rennes was that the area was infested with 'little people' who played tricks with people's minds, pointing out the limestone geomorphology and the labyrinthine tunnels both natural and manmade that honeycombed the plateau. He was possessed of considerable artistic talent and insisted that one day he would draw a comic book version that would explain everything. Until then the world would just have to be patient.
To some extent he seemed like the sanest man in the village and between him and Celia, he quietly did everything that needed doing. He picked up after the tourists, emptied the bins in the parking lot, cleaned the public toilets, changed the flowers on the altar, dug the graves, kept the treasure hunters from digging them back up again and stopped the Vatican from getting into the church and conducting their long-mooted ultra-sound scan of the cavity ("It was horrible, horrible", muttered Celia under her breath. "Those little Italian men in their little white gloves crawling all over everything."). All in a day's work in Rennes.
The barrage of data was by now becoming so formidable I had taken to carrying a dictaphone and noting down everything I saw or heard in the manner of a forensic pathologist, hoping to sift through the material at a later date when I had the insight to be able to separate the essential from the trivial.
The following are transcripts from surviving tapes:
TRANSCRIPTS FROM THE ZONE
THE CAVES - 9.34 am October 13th 1992
R.S.: "Hey sister, it's approximately 9.34 am. Tailing Celia and Marcel on a road beneath the plateau. Just turned left off the dirt track and are doubling back towards the River of Colours, the Rousseau de Coleur, from which the village draws its water supply, so named because of the red mud. Area looks as if it has been terraced with extreme care. Now passing a rock marked with a circle, a cross and a triangle in white. No apparent explanation. Heading towards the second flight of steps built by Reverend Sauniere..."
Prolonged silence. Unintelligible whispering.
THE CAVES - 10.32 am October 13th 1992
R.S.: "10.32 local time. Now in the largest chamber of the cave immediately opposite the tower. It's obvious that the view across the river is identical to the view portrayed on the hand painted altar piece portraying the Magdalene kneeling in the grotto and it is now apparent the buildings portrayed on the skyline are not Jerusalem after all but the Tour Magdala from the reverse angle. Have managed to penetrate about fifteen metres into the cave. There is a second tunnel forking to the left seven metres from the start of the crawl. The passage seems to have been artificially filled with red earth and it is only thanks to recent erosion I have been able to penetrate this far. At the end of the crawl there is evidence someone has been trying to dig further using an empty tin..."
"The second cave was a lot deeper. Wormed my way at least twenty metres before it widened out enough for me to be able to stand. Again, there were signs of recent human activity and I managed to retrieve an abandoned flashlight bearing the name 'RAY JOLLY' and what looks like a partially erased telephone number. Flashlight still has some juice in it and is marked by three deep striations that look like... well, I dunno, kinda like teeth marks... must have been a big mother, whatever it was..."
Odd hissing feedback - unpleasantly similar to the de Rigney tape.
R.S.: "I mean, it's not like this place is supposed to have a monster in the first place. No hounds, beasts, black dogs or ABC's (Alien Big Cats), but it's got every other goddam mystery so why not? It's not like you can drop your flashlight and not notice it and these gashes are pretty... pronounced..."
Feedback returns, obscuring words.
R.S.: "...measure the teeth marks so we can figure out just what sort of critter we're dealin' with here..."
THE CHURCH - 3. 28 pm October 13th 1992
R.S.: "Now facing the bas relief on the altar. It does seem to portray the same cave I entered earlier. A series or triangular and oblong markings surround the hand-painted image. Rosy cross imagery remains curiously persistent... same deal with the ol' skull and bones. Then, of course, there is the matter of the blue oranges."
CELIA: "Blue apples."
R.S.: "Sorry. Blue apples. As in the second Rennes document. This apparently relates to the blue fruit-like objects, that appear in the borders of the designs in the stained glass windows, although they look more like grapes to me. Which relates to the theory that on, is it the winter solstice?"
CELIA: "The seventeenth of January..."
Feedback momentarily obscures words.
R.S.: "...lettering on the left hand side of the door appears very old, older than the 19th century. On the left hand side, the letters are clear but on the right they have been inexplicably erased. In fact, they appear to have been chiselled out."
Feedback reaches crescendo. Then fades.
R.S.: "On the right hand side the words above the door are paraphrased: "This is the house of God. Be aware that you are in the temple of God. In this House the treasure is within you". Sauniere plainly understood that the key to the treasure is the treasure. Which brings us back to Asmodeus..."
Loud recurrence of feedback. Words again indistinguishable.
Blue Apple Day - Approx. 12.00 am 17 Jan 1993 - The Church
Once a year, on the anniversary of Sauniere's death, the morning sun shines through the chapel windows in such a manner as to create an almost three-dimensional holograph. Unfortunately, it looks too much like a Monet painting to make any real sense like everything else in this burg but it's mighty pretty whatever the hell it is. Intriguingly, the date seems to run right with the mystery. The winter solstice is also marked by the curious sun dial on the wall of the tower overlooking the parking lot. Sauniere is supposed to have ordered his coffin on the 10th while still in good health, but on the 17th inexplicably passed away.
THE CHURCH - Approx. 3.30 pm - October 13th 1992
R.S.: "It appears as if the statue of the devil is spreading five fingers on his knee. In the neighbourhood of Rennes les Bains is a rock known locally as the 'Bread Rock' (Pere du Pain), in which are five hollows called the 'Devil's Hand'. Just below the formation known as the 'Trembling Rocks' is a stone seat cut into a boulder resting in a kind of natural amphitheatre named the 'Devil's Armchair' (Fauteuil du Diable), that Marcel referred to as the 'Centre of the Circle', and in point of fact the fingers of the devil's other hand do form a circle as if he were holding something, a missing staff or trident... Hang on, the lights just went out..."
I waited for a moment beside the font for Celia to return, giving the chapel a last once over before locking up and heading for the car, still just as baffled and thoroughly amused as ever. On a whim I found myself drawn back to a certain area, let's say for the sake of this blog, it might have been the interior of the confessional and to my growing surprise, found a loose board that came away all too easily in my hands. Barely a cosmetic gesture, but the premises was barred to the public at the time and I had momentarily found myself in what you might call a 'security gap'.
I felt a breath of stale, dank air against my face and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I quite plainly made out the curve of a narrow flight of stone steps leading steeply downwards to connect with what could only be the vault beneath the church.
I hesitated, hearing Celia's voice as she chatted to a friend outside the presbytery, Dagobert barking in the distance.
To get any closer I would have to clamber through the missing panel and although I might make it down the steps, I knew I'd be caught in the act before I had time to extricate myself and it seemed wrong to violate Celia and Marcel's trust so blatantly. I might find out what they were hiding but I'd screw up our friendship in the process and that mattered more to me.
So I put the board back in place, silently vowing to settle the mystery's hash at a later date. At least now I knew where the entrance was even if I didn't know what the chamber held, nor would I find out what lay at the base of those steps for another fifteen years, not until the summer of 2007, just after posting the first instalment of this blog when the mystery finally unravelled and the last pieces of the gaudy, gothic jigsaw fell into place.
Despite the presence of a black Madonna in the neighbouring hamlet of Limoux, nothing I had seen readily connected to the earlier events in Montserrat so I might have been forgiven for not realizing the two seemingly separate stories would somehow turn out to be part of the same enigma, a unified conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories.
On the strength of what I had seen and heard I didn't honestly believe there was anything supernatural going on in Rennes at all. The real story seemed to be in the character of its participants and not in any hypothetical 'sacred treasure'. It had been two long years since I had walked into that botannica on the lower East Side and in the interim I had gone a long way towards convincing myself the whole thing was just a ludicrous chain of 'coincidence', that nothing inexplicable had truly occurred. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence and caving in to faith just isn't my bag. The mind is a monkey and back then mine was too busy swinging through the multi-dimensional jungle jim of the Rennes pentagram to see the wood for the trees.
For starters, there was that business with the 22 steps that Marcel had been at such pains to point out during our initial tour, which I now realized corresponded not only with the steps of Jacob's Ladder, but the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, taking my investigation quite literally to the next level.
Chapter 3: La Terza Madre - The Third Mother [top]
Three Mothers: Aleph Mem Shin
"But that's... that's impossible..."
Dario shook his head, one of those rare goofy smiles lighting up his face as he tried to take it in, taking it pretty well under the circumstances, all told.
"A great, mystical secret covered and sealed with six rings. And from them emanated air, water and fire. And from them are born Fathers, and from the fathers, descendents..." Our host, Adam Simon, narrowed his eyes, reading slowly and carefully from the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation. Adam was a fine screenwriter in his own right and the director of a weird and wonderful low-budget brain surgery movie Brain Dead, starring the two Bills, Pullman and Paxton, and sporting a plot that was a virtual dry run for Pi, without the pretension.
Despite his years in the trenches turning around such noted epics as Carnosaur and Body Chemistry II on a dime, our host was a man of considerable taste and no mean intellect, who possessed one of the finest private libraries west of Arkham and knew more about the nuts and bolts of the kabbalah than myself and il maestro could fathom in a month of Sundays.
"But I had no idea. It is... unbelievable... all of this... incredible, fantastical!"
"Go on. Tell him the rest."
I turned away as Adam took a deep breath, adjusting his specs. It was the day before Hallow'een and a full moon hung over the shining Pacific and the LA basin, traffic seething along the PCH far below, part of another world separated from us by more than geographic distance. I had been firmly ensconced in Adam's guestroom all summer, preparing The Island of Dr. Moreau and enjoying the seclusion of his crumbling, open-plan hacienda just off Big Rock that had become a veritable home away from home. Part of the building had slipped down the hillside in the previous earthquake and one side of the lounge was now somewhat lower than the other, a split-level arrangement that gave rise to our affectionate nickname - 'the crack house'.
The original icon of La Morenita, Our Lady of the New World, was perched on an impromptu shrine overlooking the bay and since her installation had presided over a swarm of Mexican killer bees, a second quake, the Malibu fire which had reduced every other house in the vicinity to a gutted stub and the subsequent mudslides, rocking backwards and forwards on her pedestal but never giving an inch, seemingly extending her implacable grace to all that surrounded her. It was a precarious perch but on a clear day you could see as far as Point Dume, it came rent-free and above all, I was happy there.
I was in love or at least I thought I was, cresting my fifteen minutes of fame, at the peak of my powers and on the brink of the biggest feature film project of my career, the eternal uncatchable dream so close I could taste it. What could possibly go wrong with a scenario like that?
"The Tetragrammaton actually only relates to the Ten Sefirot. There is, however, an aspect of creation that existed before the Sefirot. In the language of the Kabbalists, this is known as the Universe of Chaos (Tohu). In this state, the Vessels, which were the proto-Sefirot, could neither interact nor give to one another. Since they could not emulate God by giving, they were incomplete and could therefore not hold the Divine Light. Since they could not fulfil their purpose, they were overwhelmed by the Light and 'shattered'. This is known as the 'Breaking of Vessels'..."
"The Breaking of Vessels; the broken shards of these Vessels fell to a lower spiritual level and subsequently became the source of all evil. It is for this reason that chaos is said to be the root of evil."
"And this book is how old?" Dario inclined his head a little closer, not understanding where any of it was heading, but liking the sound of it more and more.
"It's without question the oldest and most mysterious of all Kabbalistic texts. I think the first commentaries were written in the tenth century, but the text itself is quoted as early as the sixth. References to the work appear as far back as the first century and tradition attests to its existence even in pre-Biblical times."
"So, it's the business, right? The motherload. The Ur-text." I prompted.
"The root of all evil..." whispered il maestro and he said it in such a way that Adam and I sat as if turned to stone. It was a voice that had haunted us since we were teenagers, the voice of the maniac in half a dozen giallios, the voice of the one and only, inimitable Dario Argento and although we loved him dearly, he could still scare the crap out of us sometimes without even knowing it. He was just wrapping up Trauma at the time and a timecoded VHS of the workprint rested on the coffee table beside a copy of Mystery of the Cathedrals and the official guidebook to the Mountain of Montserrat.
Trauma was Dario's first purely American work and Asia's debut in the leading role had brought something new and faintly unsavoury to the mix. The Tom Savini severed heads looked a li'l rubbery and some of the ungraded photography unduly murky, but it was hard to judge in it's raw, unfinished state so we avoided comment, dutifully waiting for il maestro to wave his wand and work his usual magic, to somehow smooth over the rough edges and transmute base matter into gold...
"The three Mother letters, AMSh, also spell out the Hebrew word Emesh, meaning 'yesternight'. This occurs in the verse, "You slept last night (emesh) with my father (Genesis 19:34)". The word emesh also denotes deep impenetrable gloom, as in the verse, "Gloom, waste and desolation (Job 30:3)". This is the inky gloom that existed before creation, in the Universe of Chaos, the 'yesternight' before the Sefirot were brought into being. At least according to what Laban told Jacob..."
Adam's white labrador, Merlin, snarled, getting up and shaking himself as if hearing a coyote calling out in the Malibu dark somewhere just below human audio range.
"The Three Mothers represent the reconciliation of opposites, but as there is logically no way in which opposites can be reconciled, they represent a mystery that cannot be penetrated by logic."
"'Sealed with six rings', remember? 'The script which is written in the King's name and sealed with the king's ring cannot be reversed (Esther 8:8)'."
"As in the Seal of Solomon, right? Bringing us back to the goddam pentagram!"
Dario shook his head, trying to follow the elision.
"According to this, the rings here would be the rings of the King's name, that is, the letters YHV. The Kabbalists therefore say these six letters are the six directions... One commentator states that the letters AMSh contain the mystery through which one can walk on fire!"
"The three Mother letters, AMSh, represent cause, effect and their synthesis. Shin is cause, Mem is effect and Alef is the synthesis between the two opposites. Three Mothers, AMSh, in the Universe, are air, water, fire. Heaven was separated from fire. Earth was created from water and air from breath decides between them..."
"Suspiriorum... the breath..."
"Well, in the simplest physical terms 'water' represents matter, 'fire' is energy and 'air' is the space that allows the two to interact. On a somewhat deeper physical level, fire, water and air represent the three basic physical forces. 'Fire' is the electromagnetic force through which all matter interacts. The atomic nucleus, however, consists of like-positive charges, which would repel each other if only electromagnetism existed. There must therefore exist another force, which can bind the nucleus together. This is the 'strong nuclear' or pionic force which binds the nucleus together, represented by 'water'.
If this nuclear force were to interact with all particles, however, all matter would be mutually attracted together, forming a solid lump denser than a neutron star. On the other hand, even within each elementary particle, there is a need for a cohesive force to counteract the electromagnetic repulsion within the particle itself. This force can be neither electromagnetic nor pionic. This is the 'air', the 'suspiriorum', the third mother representing the weak nuclear force which decides between the other two. It is this force that allows light particles (leptons) to exist."
"What Fulcanelli calls the 'art of light', si?"
"Gotcha. Unscramble the symbolism and what we're really talking about here is sub-atomic structure. According to the publisher, Eugene Canseliet, the real Fulcanelli was an old man working at the Paris gasworks, who had been aging backwards for some years before changing gender. Ridiculous, I know, but at face value the facts check out. At least I can't dismiss Canseliet's claims out of hand."
"And this device he was supposed to have patented?"
"The calorimeter? I dunno. Measures calories as far as I can figure it. Minute heat exchanges. Which is exactly the kind of by-product you could expect from someone carrying out research based on the third law of thermodynamics."
"Sorry. But you have to talk more slowly. My English..."
"Entropy. I mean, according to Einstein, energy cannot be destroyed but according to the third law of thermodynamics, it can dissipate to the point where it can no longer be measured. So long as we're living in a 'flat' universe rather than a closed system and the fabric of space-time continues to expand, so things will continue to get older rather than younger, champagne goes flat, ideas go stale and people die. Figures that if you were trying to find a loophole in the third law, you'd need a device for measuring the unmeasurable, for keeping track of the rate of entropy. Hence the 'calorimeter'."
Sensing il maestro's confusion, Adam pushed back his chair, putting together the makings of another smoke.
"The OSS were given a specific brief to round up everyone in occupied Europe, who knew anything about nuclear power but apparently came up with squat. The CIA have been carrying a file on Fulcanelli for years but the only thing you can be sure of is that he isn't really hiding beneath the floorboards."
I nodded. "The real Fulcanelli disappeared just before the war after writing the second book. As far as we know, the third book is only a myth but I brought Elizabeth van Buren's commentary just in case..."
Dario narrowed his dark eyes, paging through the softback edition of Finis Gloria Mundae, trying to make head or tail of Elizabeth's turgid text; "The end of the glory of the world... 'in ictu occuli', in the blink of an eye..."
"As far as I can work out, the earth seems to be the 'negrido', the black stone that has to pass through the nuclear fires of the third great war; of the alchemical crucible, so to speak, in order to become the whitened Philosophical Stone of the completed Arcanum - what our man refers to as the 'supreme hour' - the time of death for some and martyrdom for others. Granted Elizabeth might be a little nuts but right now her commentary to the third book is all we've got to go on, if the third book exists at all..."
Looking over il maestro's shoulder I read slowly and carefully: "The universal spirit incarnated in man exists to teach the Truth, the Word and the Secret. All Christians await the return of Christ, yet he will appear neither before nor after but during the planetary chaos, not in human form but as pure light, a light that will break the cycle of incarnation and bring all of us back to God, an autodafe next to which all the suffering the world has ever seen will be the merest taper.
Fulcanelli indicates the cross is the hieroglyph of the alchymical crucible, in which matter is purified and INRI, which signifies exoterically Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews, means esoterically 'Igne Natura Renovatur Integra', 'Nature is regenerated or made whole by the fire'."
This is a genuine image of the full 'bomb' calorimeter in all its apocalyptic glory.
But I'm getting ahead of myself again...
"So we're... how would you say in this country? Fucked! Bottom line, no?"
"Save the elect. There's a get-out clause, see? No flesh shall be spared save that of the elect. That's what this is. Again in Fulcanelli's words 'a self-censoring secret available only to the elect'. Literally hidden in plain sight!"
"But it is written in code... in pictures..."
"A secret language passed down from God knows when. If the knowledge exists, then it figures it must have come from somewhere to start with. Mythology would have it that the famous soothsayer Tiresias had perfect knowledge of the 'language of the birds', which Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, revealed to him. It is said he was "deprived of his sight". There are penalties, see, for breaking what you call 'silentium', for revealing the secrets of Olympus to mortals, although he lived for 'seven, eight or nine ages of man' and is supposed to have been successively man and woman."
"Like Fulcanelli, no? The original alchymical hermaphrodite..."
"No shit. The 'language of the birds' was spoken also by Thales of Miletus, Melampus, Apollonius of Tyanna and Adam's namesake, Simon the magician, who was eventually buried alive by his own congregation, insisting that on the third day he would rise again. He didn't."
Adam coughed. "I mean, these are folk stories. Fairytales. Metaphors in their own right. According to the Torah, the language of the birds was spoken before the building of the tower of Babel, an act of hubris which caused the ancient common tongue to become perverted and forgotten by the grater part of humanity."
"Analogous to what the Inca's called the 'Court Language'. The double science, "both sacred and profane". Solomon was the last mortal to have spoken the language of the birds in some apocryphal accounts, but he too forgot it when he lost his seal and was forced to battle Asmodeus to regain his treasure. At least that's what it says in the 15th century magical treatise... where the hell is it now?"
"The 'Lemegeton'? I dunno. You had it last! In the Hebrew versions, he's called Midrashim. He was wounded in the knee before being cast out into the wasteland."
"Right, a devil by any other name, hence the posture of the daemon on the font."
I indicated one of the stills on the tabletop. The grimacing plaster figure glaring down at the floor of the church and the sixty-four black and white flagstones laid out as a chessboard, its corners indicating the cardinal points.
"And what we're doing is like speaking a language without really understanding it! Like, y'know, phonetic English or Italian," murmured Dario under his breath, enough of it connecting to finally make some kind of sense; "a symbolic language we can read in our dreams."
"Who knows where the concept of the motion picture apparatus, the modern mass media even begins. Griffiths and Melies licensed the invention from the Lumiere brothers, who drew their inspiration from Roget's famous pamphlet on fusion frequency, which in turn is derived from the zoetrope or the Jesuit monk Athanasius Kircher's 'moving picture wheel', the 'toy of the devil', the heretical 'illusion of life', shunned for centuries by Islam and the Holy Roman Church.
I mean, it figures that the 35mm projector with its Maltese cross configuration, that throws the strip of film past the picture head and the light generated by the burning carbon rod, that, like the Holy of Holies, you may not behold with the naked eye, but which is enclosed within the ark of the projector body, has become the new conveyor of the art of light, that we can find within the mass media and in particular the modern horror film as exemplified in your goddam work the attributes of Dante's ancient common language!"
"Particularly 'Inferno'. The one no one understands..."
"Even the title's on the money."
Dario's smile broadened. Taking a last toke, he stared out over the waves rolling silently in and the distant lights of the LA basin, as if expecting a nuclear flash at any moment.
"C'mon, guys." Adam rose, noticing the headlamps of a stretch nosing its way uncertainly up the dirt track from Big Rock. "I think it's time!"
"Can't keep 'em waiting, dude. We've got about an hour, depending on traffic we should be okay."
Dario paused, catching his breath. John Landis and Joe Dante had arranged for pristine prints of his work to be struck and screened one by one for the top brass at Raleigh Studios. Everyone who was anyone was going to be there and it was il maestro's best chance at an American career. An early draft of Stendahl's Syndrome was on the table and Bridget Fonda was notionally attached.
The time had come for il Maestro to show the world what he was really made of, to distinguish himself, to draw the line.
And as ever I was along for the ride.
Aleph Mem Shin
"So the Three Mothers represent more than just the root of evil but the root of matter. The key to the very fabric of what you call space-time? What our world is made of... or at least how it's made!"
"Considering that it's being made by someone or something in the first place. The same way you make movies, only on a far, more sophisticated level. I mean it's three dimensional to start with. Not to mention interactive. You can smell it, taste it, touch it..."
"So who's making it? And why?"
I wasn't used to il maestro asking questions and right now I didn't have any more answers. "I dunno. But it would explain a lot. Like how these things got into our work without us consciously putting them there in the first place, as well as this whole slide area between fact and fiction. Like there's really no difference between the two any more. Maybe there never was. When you get right down to it, even the fact we're having this conversation is pretty damn unlikely!"
"Is strange, yes? Unlikely." The maestro giggled, clapping me on the back as I ushered him towards the idling stretch.
"Gotta move, man. Gotta move. Never assume any audience is friendly. Particularly this one..."
"Don't forget this!" Adam hurried after us, brandishing the Sefir Yetzirah and the Trauma screener. "You never know who you might run into out there."
"And if this whole place is an illusion? A programme? What difference does it make?"
"Beats me. But if you know you're being watched, especially if you don't know who's watching, then all that matters is to try and look your best."
And in the spirit of complete honesty, il maestro wasn't looking too good. Right now he looked a l'il stoned and while our conversation had plainly engaged him, he still looked gaunt and painfully thin. Working with American crews in an elusive second-hand language had proved to be trickier than he thought, and the shoot in Minneapolis had taken a lot out of him. He had always had 'issues' with food, but since setting foor in California, he had been under tremendous pressure and I had barely seen him touch a morsel, seemingly so daunted by the size of the portions and the expected protocols of 'taking lunch' with a series of strangers that he didn't know where to even begin, allowing one plate after another to arrive and depart unsullied.
My own allegiances had been challenged by the casting of Dr. Moreau and my precarious position at New Line. Asia was up for the part of 'Aissa the cat lady', but the studio heads were more inclined towards Fairuza Balk, following negative avance word on Trauma. I knew the long knives were out and did what I could to protect him from the malicious gossip spread by lesser mortals, the bellicose Bill Lustig among them, who deliberately misinterpreted and exaggerated Dario's psychosomatic anorexia for their own evil ends, encouraging studio chiefs and distributors to believe utter nonsense, namely that my friend and mentor was either a heroin addict or a closet homosexual (Alan Jones, please stand up), suffering from a sexually transmitted disease.
I have no qualms naming names, and in the case of Signor Lustig I have good reason, as I learned later the big man from the Bronx had made similar claims about myself, apparently for no other reason than the fact I had inadvertently bedded a girl he had his eye on. Sweet. But that was ever the way in the Hollywood snakepit, the market where lies are sold. If you're reading this Bill, just remember that line from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; "I like big men. When they fall, they fall harder and sometimes they never get up!"
It was a full house at Raleigh studios, black tie and evening dress. Invitation only. I had been there every night of the week and sat through Dario's ouvre all over again, enjoying the personal introductions and the Q and A that followed. It was like an episode of 'This is Your Life', with members of his old cast and crew popping out of the woodwork at every turn. Like the master I eschewed appearing in public myself and settled anonymously into the third row, content to watch proceedings from a distance.
Inferno had always been a personal favourite of mine for reasons that by now should be more than obvious to any reader foolhardy enough to have stayed with this blog from the very top. I had seen it more times than I could remember and knew every beat by heart like an old, familiar tune. It marked a watershed in il maestro's career, but tonight he would have the chance to turn that around and arrest his declining American fortunes. Tonight he had all the ammunition he needed to finally be justly proud of the film he was presenting and face down his critics.
There were a few walk-outs but that was to be expected, although the remaining viewers were perhaps unusually silent as the Keith Emerson-score played out and the houselights finally went up. Jettisoning his usual reticence, Dario was right with the mike, still clinging to his copy of the Sefir Yetzirah, all ready to knock that curveball right out of the stadium.
"I am very proud of this film. It is perhaps my masterpiece. But the critics they do not understand. When it is released they say it has no plot, no characters but they do not understand it is written in a kind of code... like a secret language."
There was a stony silence. Then someone coughed.
"You mentioned Truffaut earlier", prompted John Landis, sensing the audience's growing uneasiness. "You mean what he termed 'total cinema?' Essentially a cinema of visual experience?"
"But you cannot analyze or deconstruct this film by conventional means. It is like the work of the alchemist in my story. A symbolic language..." His eyes roved across the auditorium, lighting on a gap in the third row. "Where is Richard ? Richard can explain..."
But I wasn't there.
Just for once I wasn't there. I had seen the movie so many times, I didn't think it mattered if I snuck out after the first couple of scenes. I can't help it if the opening sequences happen to be the ones I like best and like Suspiria, the film doesn't quite sustain the momentum of its opening half hour. I thought I'd make it back in time for the Q and A, but there was a certain young lady involved who must for now remain nameless and I was across the road having a drink with her when Dario needed me most. It may not have been my responsibility to explain my mentor's work for him or to put words in his mouth, but I still feel as if I failed him, that like the trusted disciple I was I betrayed him and left him to be fed to the sharks.
And after that things were never quite the same for either of us...
Chapter 4: Luxae Tenebris - Darkness Visible [top]
In the dark days of the Moreau affair I all but forgot about the Ark of the Covenant but Channel Four Television hadn't quite forgotten about me.
On my return to London I had duly submitted a treatment concerning the rival treasure hunters in the Rennes area entitled Raiding the Lost Ark and my words were duly read, dissected, filed and regurgitated. I can't blame the suits for not being too happy about what I'd come back with. Not only had I failed to deliver an Ark but I didn't even believe in the blessed thing. Worst of all, there were no Nazis in my treatment and the religion department wanted Nazis. Nazis were good for ratings apparently, but Rennes had not only had a quiet war, there was simply no evidence that the occupying forces had come anywhere near it, nor at any time was anyone involved with the Hitler regime ever seriously looking for the lost Ark, or, for that matter, Ravenscroft's fictional spear of Longinus.
If necessity is the mother of invention then desperation must be its granddaddy, and when asked to take a second pass at the treatment I jumped at the chance, hoping to find a way to fit the material into the requisite Indiana Jones-shaped hole. While Rennes failed to deliver on either Ark or stormtroopers, there was a story associated with one of the neighbouring villages that seemed to fit the bill and I resolved to massage the facts accordingly.
Although essentially a political ideology, the quest to define an esoteric aspect to National Socialism and reposition Mein Kampf accordingly as a mystical or quasi-religious text had begun even before the war, but acquired a renewed impetus after the collapse of the Hitler dictatorship. Thousands of SS-men and ordinary Wehrmacht confined to detention camps or facing ruin in post-war Germany sought an ideal they could cling to, that was beyond the reach of the conquering Allies and unsullied by the criminal actions of their vanquished leadership. Some retreated into denial, while others found reassurance in seeing their defeat as an inevitable chapter in a millennial struggle between the forces of good and evil that would eventually see their beliefs exonerated and the greater Aryan race triumph over its imaginary oppressors.
The earliest published accounts of these so-called 'Nazi mysteries' appear in Pauwels and Bergier's The Dawn of Magic, aka The Morning of the Magicians (1960), and Hitler et Les Tradition Cathare, aka The Occult and the Third Reich (US paperback edition - 1971), by Jean-Michel Angebert, a joint pseudonym for Michel Bertrand and Jean Angelini and appears to be the source both for Lawrence Kasdan's Raiders script and the wildly mendacious, self-published memoir of retired Texan army officer and chilli cook-off champion Colonel Howard Buechner.
The former army surgeon's main claim to fame, that he was the 'first Allied doctor to enter Dachau', has gone largely unchallenged but these events take up less than a chapter of his very strange book, Emerald Cup - Ark of Gold.
Buechner seems to believe that the 'treasure of the Cathars' (an obscure 12th century heresy once prevalent in the south of France) was none other than the mythological 'Holy Grail' itself, which he equates with the 'cup of Abraham', carved by master Afghan craftsmen from a single emerald and used by Salem to consecrate the temple in Ur of the Chaldees. The cup allegedly became part of the 'sacred treasure of the Jews' and resided in the 'holy of holies', before being removed to Europe by the Romans.
According to Buechner, the Nazi's not only located the sacred treasure in the ruins of the cathar stronghold at Montsegur but succeeded in securing it from the Allies in a daring commando raid, led by none other than Otto Skorzeny himself. The 'emerald cup' was later spirited to safety in Antarctica by a secret U-boat convoy along with the 'real Adolf Hitler', his surviving brass and pretty much every other lost, mythical treasure you can shake a stick at.
In a loony tunes take on the 'myth of the eternal return' further embroidered over the years by countless pseudohistorians and sundry right wing mythomaniacs the fuhrer survives, safe in the protective womb of the hollow earth, presiding over an esoteric struggle against the war's exoteric victors and waiting for the stars to come round to their right place before rising like King Arthur, Osama bin Laden or Cthulhu before him to conjure a glorious Fourth Reich from the frozen embers, symbolized by the 'black sun', the 12-armed Merovingian rune wheel that appears on the floor of the Hall of the Supreme Leadership in the SS Order Castle (the Wewelsberg near Padeborn) and is believed to represent the dark light of the 'world within'.
I've heard enough shaggy dog stories to be able to smell one a mile away and whilst entertaining enough in it's own silly Boys Own Adventure kinda way, I was all too aware that Buechner's fantasy had a potentially dangerous downside. Since the assassination of their leader George Lincoln Rockwell in the sixties, the American Nazi Party has taken a much more subtle and insiduous approach to the media, adopting the neo-Trotskyite policy of 'entryism' by secretly infiltrating thriving pop cultural movements such as the late 20th century UFO community or the modern New Agers (via intermederies such as David Icke and Nexus magazine) to sow the seeds of militant pan-Aryanism without drawing attention to their racist agenda.
The so-called 'Nazi mysteries' (ie: Ravencroft's spear, Kasdan's Ark and Buechner's 'Emerald Cup') have been adopted into the canon of these warped beliefs and there is no doubt the modern neo-Nazis reaped some benefit from ol' Indy in the process, something Steven Spielberg definitely wouldn't like to consciously consider. All publicity is good publicity after all, a factor demonstrated by the way Opus Dei recently capitalized on the Da Vinci Code, with membership soaring despite their portrayal in the film as comic book bad guys. It is possible that these seemingly harmless fantasies can inadvertently prick the curiosity of young minds, while simultaneously distracting from the cruel memory of the Third Reich itself in suggesting that the Nazi's were an interesting, potentially spiritual people with something to say rather than a bunch of common or garden thugs.
Accordingly, I approached Buechner's yarn with due trepidation, setting aside just 24 hours to familiarize myself with the village of Montsegur before returning to the Rennes area where the real story seemed to be. If I could only find out once and for all what lay beneath the church, I figured Channel Four would have to take notice and hoping that I could quietly drop the Indiana Jones-angle, I had prepared an alternative treatment entitled The Devil's Chessboard, that in point of fact remained largely unread until it eventually formed this blog's opening chapters.
Ironically, another researcher working for a company contracted to Four has been in touch lately, picking my brains for an almost identical Jones-related brief and in her most recent mail mentioned that I may well have become the acknowledged English-language expert, when it comes to the subject of 12th century Occitanian history and the 'Nazi mysteries' in particular, a dubious distinction which comes with age but in those far-off times I had little or no interest in the cathar faith and the story of their persecution was largely unknown to me.
My companions on this outing were a researcher and occasional writer for the Fortean Times, who was struggling to rework the Rennes treatment for Channel Four's consumption, and a young lady whom I had foolishly invited along for the ride. Like the post-war Nazis, I had sought to ease the recent wounds of Moreau debacle by taking refuge in an apparently immutable but effectively illusory past, by attempting a half-assed reconciliation with my first girlfriend, Kate, whom long-term readers may recall took such violent exception to Dario's movies all those years ago. I had enjoyed my previous visit to the area and having come to the conclusion that a material rather than supernatural treasure lay at the core of the 'Rennes mystery', I had no reason to believe that I might have been putting the lady in danger by bringing her with me.
We arrived in the village of Montsegur late in the day and I resolved to hike up to the ruined castle on the mountaintop to watch the sun go down. We were due to make an early start the following morning, so this would be my one and only chance to take in the remains of the 12th century citadel fancifully identified by Buechner as the 'Grail Castle'. As we climbed higher, our writer friend seemed to grow visibly more nervous and by the time we came in sight of the walls of the keep was feeling too uncomfortable to continue further. Demanding that we hand over the car keys he turned tail and made a hurried descent, leaving Katie and myself to enter the castle alone. It had been a beautiful, clear late summer day and the light and space of the high mountains as well as the thrill of being back on the trail had lifted my spirits but in hindsight our friend's nervous behaviour and the abrupt disappearance of his usual good humor was the first sign that Montsegur was not a place to be taken lightly. As the sign on the fence at Stonehenge puts it: "Warning! Ancient monuments can be dangerous!"
Shrugging off our friend's abrupt departure, we found our way to the highest point in the castle, the broad white battlement overlooking the gorge of the Ers river far below.
Even then it occurred to me that there was something a little strange about the castle's construction, as if it were constructed backwards, to keep something in instead of out but there was so little left of it other than those oddly calcinated walls, that it offered scant clues as to the true purpose of its construction. Montsegur, literally the 'secure' or 'safe mountain' was the greatest of the cathar strongholds, widely held to represent the earliest examples of gothic architecture to appear in Europe, a fact of history that was yet to assume its true import in my muddled post-Moreau mind. After all, the knowledge that Fulcanelli seemed to decode from the gothic cathedrals had to have come from somewhere to begin with, but I had yet to engage with the obvious implications of what exactly that ancient technology might have entailed.
While immediately impressed by the fact that not anyone could have built such a beautiful and complex construction at this altitude, I had not come to terms with that what I thought I knew about the distant past had been filtered through the minds of dark age monks and inquisitors, and as a result, I suffered from the typically smug 21st century assumption that the inhabitants of 12th century Occitania had been our scientific and intellectual inferiors, rustic, unlettered, superstitious, essentially 'medieval' with all the mud-spattered, gurning, Pythonesque barbarity that word implies. For good or for bad, I was about to have that misconception shattered forever.
As the sun settled behind the Pic de Saint Barthelemy (from whence Sauniere's 'housekeeper' drew her surname 'Denarnaud-Barthelemy', since you ask), a golden spume of cloud boiled up out of the west, moving so fast it was as if we were watching real-time animation or some form of time lapse photography. In fact, it put me in mind of another Spielberg movie entirely and this being the nineties and UFO's being all the rage, we half-expected the 'mothership' from Close Encounters to show up at any moment.
But it wasn't a bunch of benevolent aliens. It was a sudden, violent late summer storm and it was coming right at us.
Forked lightning flickered within the thunderhead and realizing we were perched on the very highest point in the landscape, we decided to make ourselves scarce. We got as far as the natural buttress just below the castle wall when the storm closed around us and lightning began to strike into the walls of the keep, and the flanks of the mountain below, close enough to make our hair stand on end, much closer than I ever wanted to get to that kind of voltage. The cloud swirled about the peak as if the castle were somehow sucking in the lightning, four or five streamers of writhing white hot plasma intertwining at a time, reaching down out of the vortex like a vast inhuman hand, and all the while a blinding light streamed from the doors and curiously angled 'arrow slits' - a light so bright I thought I might never see anything again.
Warm rain squalled over us and the light drained from the day as we huddled together like trapped animals, trying to make ourselves as small as possible. Let's face it, we know very little about lightning to begin with and if the 'supernatural' is merely the natural to the power of ten, then this was the genuine article. A single bolt of lightning can kill you without even touching you. The electro-magnetic pulse alone is enough to stop the human heart even at a distance, and there were literally hundreds of thousands of volts earthing themselves within a few feet of us. The sheer existential terror of it came upon us as suddenly as if we had been caught in a violent riptide, the belittling sensation of being caught helplessly in the jaws of something far bigger and more powerful than ourselves, along with the dawning suspicion that we might at any moment be reduced to a smouldering grease spot.
There was a strange, half-familiar smell that I took at first to be the smell of the wet mountainside, a sweet smell vaguely reminiscent of the icing on a wedding cake.
A hint of almonds. Kate had been whimpering in sheer panic, but when that smell began to grow stronger she curled more tightly against me and fell silent as if she were too scared to make a sound, too frightened to even breathe or open her eyes in case 'it' somehow saw or sensed her. And there were other sounds that seemed to come from out of the storm. Hard as this is to believe or accept, there were sounds like voices, like the cries of human souls burning in hellfire. Later I tried to justify this absurdity by telling myself it was merely the bellowing of the cattle in the fields far below, their lowing amplified and distorted by the weird Alpine acoustics. I tried, like I say, but at the time I was reduced to a cowering state of gibbering 'medieval' terror, which is doubtless what I deserved for having been dumb enough to take the Holy Grail as a joke to begin with.
The only way out lay the way we had come and we tried to insulate ourselves as best we could, getting rid of all the metallic objects on our bodies, discarding money, watches and jewelry before crawling on our hands and knees towards the maw of the keep and the source of that strobing incandesence.
I was gripped by a sense of unreality, similar to the way it felt the first time I had gotten too close for comfort with a Great White while diving as a teenager off the Cape of Good Hope, a sense that I was somehow watching a special effect rather than the real thing. It had looked just like Bruce, the mechanical shark in Jaws, dorsal fin cutting the water, rubbery grey skin dappled by sunlight, and that lightshow in the keep looked like dodgy optical effects from the last reel of a Hollywood supernatural thriller, the bolts of plasma so insanely bright they might have been scratched into the emulsion with the tip of a scalpel. Only it wasn't a movie...
We paused as we reached the courtyard. We were both convinced we could see something moving in there, what at first appeared to be figures but I rationalized it as the shadows of dense, fast-moving clouds, projected by random flashes of lightning against the stonework. Then Kate began to scream.
In years to come, I would learn the walls of the castle form a 'Faraday cage' and the voltage coursing through them that night would have inevitably effected the electromagnetic field within the keep itself. All I knew at the time was that as Katie stepped through the archway, she began to quiver and thrash, eyes rolling up in their sockets as if in the grip of an incipient grande mal, her body shuddering with such violence that I truly believed she was being attacked, caught in the grip of some unseen presence from out of the dark.
My nightvision is normally 20:20, but the lightning was playing hell with my visual purple and between bursts the gloom was impenetrable. Grabbing her flailing figure, I tried in vain to put myself between her and whatever seemed to be attacking her, physically dragging her out of the courtyard and part way down the mountainside where her pulse and breathing seemed to gradually stabilize.
"What did they do here? What did they f*****g do in this place?!"
Those were the only words I can recall her saying, repeated over and over like a mantra in my mind through the long years to come, but at that time I had no answer for her.
Strange, drifting points of green light seemed to fill the night around us and when we reached the treeline, we realized the woods were alive with glow worms, presumably roused by the sudden rain. Kate's breathing became quicker and more tortured as we reached the base of the slope and she began to tremble violently, unable to move any further on her own. Then there was another fusillade of lightning and she collapsed into what I would have taken to be a fully blown seizure had she had any previous history of epilepsy, thrashing like a broken bug on the wet grass, screaming and screaming, looking for all the world like one of those 'possessed' nuns from the eponymous Ken Russell movie.
I caught hold of her and she raged against me, but I refused to leave her to lie, not there, not at that particular spot, anywhere but there. The last of the cathars had died at Montsegur in 1242 but they didn't die in the castle. They had been dragged down the mountainside by their persecutors and burned alive on what has come to be known as the 'Camp de Cremat', the first level place where the crusaders could build a stockade and gather the necessary brushwood. Kate didn't know she had fallen at that very spot and I had no intention of telling her or allowing her stay put.
Whatever it was that had found us on the mountaintop, seemed to follow as we struggled back to the nearby village and the tiny auberge, where we had taken lodging. We banged frantically on the door of our writer friend's room, demanding he give us back the car keys, but for whatever reason he refused to open the door or allow us in. I heard Kate utter my name and as I turned towards her she reached out, the clasps that held back the steel shutters on the window immediately behind her torn abruptly free by the storm as her voice tailed off into a hideous, rattling moan. Her hand caught hold of my right arm, so tight the bruise took more than a week to fade, her eyes bulging as the veins seem to force their way to the surface of her purpling skin, her twisted face as livid and engorged as a week old corpse, the lashing shutters slamming crazily against their quivering frame like something from The Amityville Horror, white light blazing in at me as if whatever it was we had encountered in the keep was right there outside the window or perhaps already in the room.
Digging Kate's nails from my flesh, I lunged towards the window and narrowing my eyes against the light reached out into the roaring void. Catching the wildly swinging shutters I drew them closed, wedging them sensibly in place with a steel bar. And at that very moment Katie caught her breath and folded to the floor, losing consciousness as if the plug had been pulled on whatever force that animated her. Normal color had returned to her cheeks and while our relationship was dead on arrival, I contented myself with the fact that she was at least breathing. I settled myself in an armchair beside her, too shaken to sleep and while the storm howled outside, began to re-read everything I could find on the castle's history.
Dawn was clear and cloudless, as if the night before had never happened. Our writer 'friend' was sullen and withdrawn at breakfast, refusing to discuss the events of the night before other than to bitch about all the screaming and banging having interrupted his sleep. The British psyche being what it is, I imagine he assumed we were either on drugs or had been engaging in some form of rough trade sex and slamming the furniture around accordingly. When pushed on the subject, he eventually suggested we had probably been suffering from a 'shared hallucination', not the last time I would hear such an excuse in the course of my enquiries, but for now it seemed to fit the bill.
The only person who believed us was our hostess, the auberge's aging landlady. We were lodging in what turned out to be the oldest house in the village and Madame Couquet had lived there all her life and her father before her. She was as wise as the wild, green hills, and had seen enough to know we weren't play-acting or 'hallucinating'. After all, she explained, we had been sleeping in Otto's room.
And who the hell was Otto?
And for the first time I heard the story of the young SS officer, who had come to Montsegur in the days before the war, in search of the most sacred relic in Christendom, the most high holy Grail and how some believed he had attained that quest. Madame Couquet had been a little girl at the time, but she remembered the tall, silent German well and had kept his room just as it had been back in the day he had taken lodging there. Otto Rahn had seen something in the keep on his first visit, something that failed to gel with his rational, typically German intellect, something he couldn't adequately explain that drew him back to the castle again and again and ultimately turned him against the corrupt regime he had initially served.
Apparently Rahn was an old man now, but according to Marius Mounie, the former mayor, he still visited the area. Marius was no spring chicken himself, and for his story to be true, Rahn would have to be a septogenerian, but then it does say in Wolfram von Eschenbach's 12th century troubadour epic Parsifal, that whoever has the Grail or comes near to it "will have eternal life."
Of course our friend from the Fortean Times wasn't having a word of it. The events of the night before had left him increasingly convinced that Montsegur was a dangerous distraction from the main story, and despite the fact I had undergone something of a Damascene conversion, I could scarcely disagree. There was unfinished business in Rennes and the matter of what really lay beneath the church remained tantalizingly unresolved, although I was starting to suspect that what seemed to be the missing piece of the puzzle, the treasure itself, would probably add up to less than the sum of the increasingly strange details that surrounded it.
The fact that I was starting to become a 'believer' probably alienated my co-writer even more than the ruckus the night before, but for the first time my waking mind had begun to admit to the possibility that something genuinely inexplicable was at work, something that couldn't be readily put down to the antics of the cranks and treasure hunters drawn to the area, but I lacked the perspective and maturity to join the dots and in the end grudgingly agreed to omit all mention of the Rahn affair from the report submitted to Channel Four.
It was obvious at a glance that things had changed in Rennes and not for the better.
The breakdown of the relationship between Celia and her former husband had unforeseen consequences and the international Sufi movement had foreclosed on La Metairie Blanche, forcing her to vacate the property only a few days before we arrived, in order to install one of their own, a visiting Sufi sheik, in the white house on the hilltop where she had found a treasure all those years ago. Marcel had taken her into his own home in the village but she was in a wretched, black dog-mood and we feared she might be on the verge of attempting suicide or losing the plot entirely like so many others in the zone.
Despite his usual good humor, the years had evidently not been kind to Marcel. His brother, Antoine, had gained the upper hand in the running feud, forcing Marcel to give up the keys to the kingdom. Antoine and Claire Corbu had taken control of Sauniere's domain and working hand-in-glove with a shadowy consortium known only as the 'Association de terre de Rhedae', were 'restoring' the church and the Villa Bethany with an eye towards capitalizing on the mystery trade by opening the grounds for the first time to the public. In the course of the 'restoration', many if not all of the original furniture and fittings, including Saunier's books and the original brightly colored panes of glass from the crumbling greenhouse, had mysteriously gone missing.
Whatever remained of the truth was vanishing rapidly from ken, replaced by what increasingly resembled an esoteric theme park complete with waxwork effigies of Sauniere and an incongruously aged, suitably 'witchy'-looking Marie. In real life, she had been a relatively young woman at the time, just one of the many misconceptions that had taken root as the events receded and the story took on the substance of myth. Worse still, Marcel's gout was playing up and the new mayor, an unscrupulous right wing martinet with a very chequered history of military service in North Africa, was giving him hell over the upkeep of the parking lot and the public toilets which remained his uninspiring responsibility.
In the meantime Marcel had completed his comic book, a graphic exegesis that while lovingly detailed coyly omitted any details about the nature of the treasure itself. It did go as far as showing the staircase leading to the vault, however, before cutting away, which was enough to raise a few eyebrows at least among seasoned Rennes watchers. While Marcel had no trouble in finding a publisher, he had typically been cheated of his royalties and was as down on his luck as ever. Although public interest in the area continued unabated, fed by a slew of documentaries and paperback bestsellers promising new revelations, very little revenue had found its way into the pockets of the locals themselves. The only sign of civic rejuvenation was the appearance of a restaurant named the 'Pomme Bleu', although it was in the hands of a British couple, who had bought into the area and was accordingly shunned by the locals.
While there was still no hotel in the zone and the cuisine sucked, you could at least get a decent drink in a relaxed, paranoid atmosphere surrounded by fellow treasure hunters and conspiracy theorists, who habitually fell silent every time the music stopped for fear whoever was sitting at the next table might overhear whatever it was they were plotting. And they were always plotting something in Rennes. The first law of magic was written on the ala carte menu and the waitresses wore black with matching silver pentagrams of the sort now commonly available in the local bookstore, which was looking more like a gift shop every day, replete with bumper stickers, tee shirts and novelty pens that, when shaken, showed Sauniere escaping from the Villa Bethany with his treasure in a wheelbarrow.
The commercialization of the enigma, although a little sad, was not without its pleasures and I was pleased to note the works of H. P. Lovecraft and accompanying facsimile Necronomicons were now habitually stocked on the plateau, which seemed like a tacit admission of sorts.
Things had begun to change off plateau too and life in the zone just wasn't the same.
The incoming mayor had done a clandestine deal with another town, and had sold them most of the local water supply. The River of Colours had dwindled to a muddy trickle and fields that had once been filled as far as eyes could see with luxuriant waist high marijuana plants now lay fallow and desolate. Most of Danielle's cats had finally died and although he still sold treasure maps, since his girlfriend had left he had taken to wearing a dress and now answered only to the name of 'Ariane'. Possibly because of the lack of water he made no effort to shave or depilate, although his shaggy appearance rested incongruously with the hand-me-down feminine attire. He was close to the only surviving 'freak' in the area, now that the UFO community had given up the ghost.
Even the new agers pitched on Celia's former land were having a lean season. The incoming Sheik had recently acquired a gun and was apparently threatening to shoot any squatters found on 'his' land.
I'd had some truck with the Sufi movement over the years and while it was perhaps none of my business, it was obviously high time someone had words with the Sheik and gave him a li'l perspective on his actions. Since my time in California, I had internalized the kabbalah and set about learning the ninety-nine secret names of God and the sigils that accompanied them, which, like the 'Weirding Way' in Frank Herbert's Dune, could be used as fighting words, to strike and kill like stones even if pronounced correctly.
Realizing that I was sympathetic to Celia's plight and perhaps sensing a showdown in the wind, the Sheik decided to head me off at the pass by inviting us to break bread with him instead, an event that lead to undoubtedly the strangest and most diabolically Bavaesque dinner parties I have ever had the privilege of surviving, putting even my days with the Brando clan to shame.
Chapter 5: The Immortal's Feast [top]
Being the south, the soiree was alfresco, served at a long table set up on the hilltop overlooking Rennes. The Sheik, being the lord of all he surveyed, sat at the head of the table, giggling at his own jokes and grinning like a malignant Chesire cat at the merry mischief that surrounded him. The first thing that struck me was that he didn't look like a Sheik at all, and there was nothing eastern in his genetic make-up or even vaguely centered in his manner. In fact he looked exactly like 'Bob' from Twin Peaks, his long grey hair tied back in a tail and he spoke with what sounded like a Canadian accent. He didn't bother rising when we were introduced, and presumably imagined the magnum in the holster ostentatiously slung over the back of the chair and his good grace with the secret society that had mysteriously installed him, had given him a blank cheque to behave as he pleased.
I was seated at the far end of the table with Katie on one hand and Celia on the other, both by now so deeply traumatized neither were much good for conversation, although Kate wore it better. Celia did her best to bear up, her daughter, Grace, glowering quietly at her side, administering kicks to her mother's shins every time she started blubbing openly. Our writer 'friend' sat about as far away from myself and Kate as he could get, mindful of the events of the night before and possibly fearing a further bout of unprovoked daemonic possession, safely buttressed by Marcel and a nervous looking Dutchman named Harry and his equally nervous girlfriend, who apparently worked for the 'Association'. Claire Corbu, Noel's orphaned daughter, had been invited but unsurprisingly, considering the bad blood between Marcel and Antoine, failed to show, which turned out to be a smart move on her behalf. Dagobert, the big, white Pyrenean mountain dog, filled out the assembly, ensconced beneath the table and keeping a rheumy eye out for whatever scraps came his way as the malefic meal wound its way painfully from course to course.
"But it's not fair..."
"It's horrible," muttered Harry.
"I hear you there, dude."
"But it's my house..."
"Care for some salad, Celia?" Our writer 'friend' smiled politely, his efforts at keeping up appearances developing a slightly cracked edge.
I met Marcel's eyes across the table and he raised one hand to his head, miming a gun and smiling as he pretended to pull the trigger.
"When you work for the 'Association', you find out things the public don't know!"
Harry's girlfriend nodded sympathetically, something a little mechanical in the gesture, as if they had gone through this routine a million times before.
"My table... my chairs..."
"Try the wine... of course, it's got no legs at all."
Our 'friend' raised his glass, swilling it in the fading light.
"I don't know how much longer I can take it, personally..."
"Shut up! It's your fault you lost the place, you stupid old bat," hissed Grace.
Dagobert growled uneasily beneath the table.
"How much longer any of us can take it?" Harry tailed off, gazing past me into the gloom. Dusk was rising from the ground now as it usually did, the trunks of the trees marching away into the twilight, the hump of the Rennes plateau looming from the mist behind me like Bocklin's Isle of the Dead.
"My knives. My spoo... owhhch!!" Celia grunted, absorbing another kick.
The Sheik giggled. Then he stopped, catching the look on my face.
"I bet you don't believe there's anything 'supernatural' going on around here at all, do you, Mr... Mr...?"
"Mister is okay with me. Yesterday I would have said no, but after last night I don't have any choice. There is something going on around here and 'supernatural' pretty much covers it..."
"You were in Montsegur?"
I nodded silently and Kate shuddered as if the mere mention of the name might set her off all over again.
"You should talk to my friend Michael," said the Sheik, reaching for his cell and keying in a number. "He knows a lot more about that place than I do..."
"That place..." Katie pushed back her chair, opting out of the conversation, fear and confusion flitting across her face as the Sheik earnestly passed me the handset.
"He's been studying it all his life. Made a film about it... about... what was it again?"
I listened to the cell ring and then somewhere on the far side of the world I heard Michael Mann's answering service click on.
"The Keep... yeah.. that was it."
I terminated the call, deeply grateful no-one actually picked up. "That movie sucked."
"Well it can be a bad thing to be obsessed," mused the Sheik, eyes wandering over the darkening treetops as if trying to see what Harry was looking for. "You can lose perspective, y'know..."
"The music was alright I suppose..."
"Hang on-- what was that?!"
The Sheik was pointing past me and turning I saw a distant pinprick of light moving across the sky, so high up it was probably on the outer edge of the stratosphere.
"Looks like a satellite to me..."
"Definitely a satellite", concurred our writer 'friend' hurriedly. Ignoring him, the Sheik started across the lawn and after a beat Grace followed.
"The mad hatter's tea party!" chirped Harry's girlfriend. "This is it!"
"So, which one are you?" I asked, deciding I might as well make a game of it. "Alice or the dormouse?"
"And you? No, don't tell me. I can guess... You're the march hare!"
In the momentary lull we all caught the Sheik's hushed voice as he pointed out the retreating speck of light to Celia's scowling daughter.
"They come at the same time every night. Like clockwork..."
Grace edged closer, scowl deepening as our host stared intently up at the empty sky, breathing deeply and rhythmically, in through the nose and out through the mouth...
"Can you hear 'em?"
"Them! Y'know... The people from the Pleides.."
The Sheik closed his eyes, one hand trailing lightly against Grace's surly fifteen-year old ass. She didn't seem to notice or make any effort to step away. "I can talk to 'em. The same as the way I talk with the dolphins. From here and from here..." He indicated his pineal gland with his forefinger, then his plexus.
I narrowed my eyes. "What dolphins?"
"He used to work with dolphins all the time back in the States. Him and his partner. Right?"
The Sheik nodded smiling goofily. "Yeah. Dr John, man. He taught me everything. Everything I needed to know..."
"Dolphins, huh?" This was starting to make some kind of ghastly sense to me, the info shrapnel steadily snowballing into a cohesive outline. Michael Mann. The international Sufi movement. Dr John. Cetaceans. People from the Pleides.
"Something on your mind, mister? Go on..." The Sheik smiled, unbuttoning his shirt to reveal his graying chest hairs. "How old do you think I am?"
"I don't know, dude. I don't care if you're 48, 58 or 158. But there is one li'l bone I'd like to pick with you..."
The Sheik went pale. He opened his mouth as if to say something and then closed it again, fear sparking in his eyes. "I don't know what you mean... I..."
"FUCK!!! Who sent you? I'm out of it now, man. I'M OUT OF IT!!!"
"It's too late, dude. Don't give me regrets."
"How much do you know?"
"As much as I need to."
"Shit. You're one of Whistler's boys, right? You saw the file..."
I nodded, winging it.
"I can't fuckin' believe it... That piece of shit in Aspen blabbed. We're fuckin' fucked now... they killed my brother. They killed my fucking brother..."
I didn't have to turn to sense Kate and Celia hovering behind me.
"I don't suppose you mind telling us what you people are on about?"
"I was just fishing. Thought I'd throw in a couple of trigger words and see how he reacted. I didn't know he'd take it this badly!"
"Jim! Jim!!!" The Sheik took a step backwards and then fell to his knees, clawing at his hair and clothes.
"What the hell did you throw at him? One of the ninety-nine secret names of God?"
"Mkultra and Operation Artichoke. They're codenames for a CIA mind control programme."
"How did you know that?"
"Read it in a book. The Search for the Manchurian Candidate by John Marks (1979). How else? I mean, I don't think it's even classified any more."
Tearing at his shirt, the Sheik began to sing in Hebrew, tears streaming helplessly down his cheeks.
"He looks really sick. C'mon. We'd better get him inside..."
The interior of 'la Metairie' was exactly as Celia left it the day the Sufi movement sent her packing. The 'Sheik' didn't seem to have any personal effects other than his recently acquired firearm, and there was only one conspicuous addition to the existing furnishings. A huge reinforced steel safe stood in the corner of the room and the sight of it seemed to reassure our host no end. Steadying himself, he spun the combination lock first one way and then another, listening for the soft click as the tumbrels disengaged. I already had a pretty good idea about what we would find, but the sight of those thousands of tiny, gleaming ampoules arranged in rack after rack within took the others by surprise.
"The hell is that stuff?" muttered Katie, taking a step back as the 'Sheik' tore open a packet of disposable needles, still running on auto-pilot.
"Elixir vitae, man. Alchemical mercury!" whispered the 'Sheik', expertly filling one of the syringes.
"It's a tranquiliser named 'Ketamine' - used mostly by veterinary surgeons. Also known as 'Vitamin K' to the great and the good," I explained, turning one of the ampoules in my hand to examine the lot number. "This batch seems to have come straight from source. Dr.John Lilly's lab in Aspen, Colorado."
"I mean how old do you think I am," muttered the Sheik, tying off.
"You round up the others and try and get them home, okay? Anyone who wants to leave. Now would be the time."
"Someone has to stay with him. We can't just leave him like this... besides, it's high time we found out what's going on around here."
"Okay. Just don't go getting into that stuff. Whatever it's called. We've got an early start tomorrow. We're due in Rennes les Bains at seven thirty, remember?"
"I'm cool. Don't worry!"
The 'One World Dreaming' balloon was once a permanent fixture at the Glastonbury festival, but since the young New Ager, who owned and maintained the elaborate montgolfier moved back to France, he had fallen on hard times. Considering the Jules Verne connection, the opportunity to survey the zone from the air had proved irresistible and the itinerant aviator had jumped at the excuse to take us for a spin around Mount Bugarach, weather and cross winds allowing.
I figured that gave me enough time to hear the Sheik out and if things did get a bit heady then the light and space of the balloon journey was the best possible method of blowing away the cobwebs.
Marcel and Harry took charge of ferrying the confused guests back to their various beds, while I built a fire on the hearth and waited to hear the 'Sheik' out. I don't know how much of that stuff he was mainlining but it seemed to do the trick, pulling his scrambled head together just long enough for me to pry his story out of him.
He assumed I knew far more than I did, but that was ever the Achille's heel of the intelligence community and secret societies in general. As they are secret to begin with, no-one ever really knows who's working for who and there's always a sneaking suspicion the other guy probably knows more than you do, or is already an initiate of some more exotic order. Adopting a friendly, brotherly tone I settled myself on Celia's couch, casually throwing in the occasional 'buzz' word to spur the 'Sheik' along. In the event he didn't need much encouragement. It was an old story and I had already guessed its outlines. There are a million stories just like it in the zone, drifting through eternity...
His real name was Adam Trumbull and he claimed to be a close relative of Douglas Trumbull, the special effects creator of Kubrick's 2001 and director of such offbeat entries as Silent Running (1971) and Brainstorm (1983). The Trumbull family was from old French-Quebecois stock and according to Adam, they were directly descended from the Templar grand master who founded Montreal. The Templars had more or less invented banking by coming up with the first chequebook at the time of the crusades, and after their persecution in Europe, had alledgedly fled to the New World from whence they had plotted their revenge on the kings of France, instigating the French revolution and the 'nights of fire' in Haiti. At least according to Adam, who unearthed a slew of geneologies and crumpled identity documents from a cardboard folder. For all I know they were probably elaborate forgeries, no more authentic than the famous 'Rennes documents' at the core of the Baigent/Lincoln/Leigh book and, in point of fact, resembled nothing more than hand-outs in an elaborate role-playing game.
Adam had always had a strong interest in the paranormal in general and telepathy in particular. In the early 70's, his research had brought him into contact with John C. Lilly, M.D., a fellow physician and psychoanalyst, who focused on biophysics, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, electronics and computer theory. In essence, he also studied consciousness - human and animal consciousness. Lilly had been involved in electro-shock therapy and sensory deprivation studies since 1956, when he had begun immersing volunteers in a tank of lukewarm water. The subjects wore a face mask that enabled them to see only blurred light. The maximum time a volunteer could tolerate these conditions was only three hours. The volunteers reported feelings of unreality and tremendous loss of identification. They literally did not know where they were, or who they were, or what was happening to them. Due to this enormous mental pressure most of them abandoned the experiment.
In the early 70's, Lilly had been introduced to the drug Ketamine by Dr. Craig Enright, in the hope of alleviating the chronic and oddly regular headaches he had been suffering all his life. As Lilly floated in the isolation tank fluid, Enright injected him with 35 milligrams. Within a few minutes, Lilly could actually visualize the migraine pain moving out of his skull and subsequently felt no pain whatsoever for approximately twenty minutes, until it once again reentered his head. When Lilly began moaning and groaning Enright shot him up with another 70 mg. This time Lilly felt the pain moving farther away, "about twelve feet this time". When the pain returned, Enright administered a further 150 mg. This time, when the pain left Lilly's head, it didn't come back. An hour later Lilly climbed out of the tank a new man.
A week later, when Doctors Enright and Lilly met at the Esalen isolation tank, they agreed to join forces and conduct a joint research into the effects of Ketamine as a possible programming agent. The movie Altered States was based on one of their initial experiments. On this occasion, Enright injected himself with a measured dose of K and, "with Lilly observing", began a strange odyssey into the primal/archetype regions of his psyche, returning to the "prehominid origins of man". Enright, in this programmed "altered state", displayed all the typical features, movements and sounds of an Ape Man; hopping around in a crouching position, grunting, growling, ranting and howling. Lilly assumed Enright was having some sort of seizure, whilst his fellow researchers 'reality' consisted of a confrontation with a leopard, which he drove away with his arms flailing, grunting and shrieking. Finally Enright climbed up into a tree and stared balefully down at his friend and colleague from the branches above.
An important factor in Lilly's decision to continue experimenting with Ketamine was its measurability. K's effects were extremely repeatable, in that you could determine exacting levels of dosage to correspond with the desired effect one wished to experience; whereas other mind expansion agents such as LSD and psilocybin are a somewhat quirkier and inherently less predictable. With Ketamine, Lilly found a suitably empirical approach could be followed to achieve literally mind-bending results.
The potential inherent in the concept of 'mind control' had long been a source of fascination to both the US military and the wider intelligence community. In 1949, the CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) initiated a program initially christened Project BLUEBIRD, with a specific brief to conduct an "analysis of foreign work in certain unconventional warfare techniques, including behavioral drugs". This was evolved to become the blueprint and bible of mind-control programs and psychological operations adopted by the west for decades afterwards.
The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 and the subsequent exchange of POW's encouraged western intelligence to delve even further into the program's potential. In August 1951, the program was renamed Project Artichoke and in 1952 was transferred from OSI to the predecessor organization of the Office of Security. OSI did retain a responsibility for evaluation of foreign intelligence and in 1953, made a proposal that experiments be made in testing LSD with Agency volunteers in the hope of creating "sleeper" assassins, who could be triggered by hearing a certain word or phrase.
Captain John McCarthy, who ran the CIA assassination team that operated out of Saigon during the Vietnam war, told a friend that MKULTRA was an acronym for "Manufacturing Killers Utilizing Lethal Tradecraft Requiring Assassinations", which sounds like a reach to me but you never know. Donald Rumsfield was involved in the program from its early days and the original 'Nam team (codename: Archangel) were reassembled when the program was reactivated as Operation Pheonix for the second Gulf War, and subsequent occupation and asset stripping of Iraq.
Dr. Lilly later openly admitted that his early LSD and tank research had been conducted under the program's malignant auspices, and while remarkably relaxed about his source of funding and the use to which his research had been applied, Adam's seething paranoia and that loaded magnum slung over the back of his chair bore mute testimony to the long shadow MKULTRA cast out of time.
Operation Artichoke and its kid brother MKULTRA were of course the direct inspiration for Richard Condon's 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, which, in turn, formed the basis for director John Frankenheimer's classic feature film.
(*** probably doesn't mean anything but this section of the posting keeps dropping out for reasons that seem to defy conventional MySpace logic. I have duly reinstated the esssential details in thumbnail. Keep watching this space and see if it stays put! 22 Nov 2007 - R.S ***)
Frankenheimer served as an advisor on JFK's campaign team and after the events of the November 22nd in Deeley Plaza, the film was famously withdrawn from distribution. The president's brother was subsequently to spend the last night of his life as a guest at the director's mansion in north Los Angeles, and Frankenheimer personally drove Bobby to his date with destiny at the Ambassidor hotel the next morning, and was present at the fatal moment. Now I'm not suggesting the director of The Island of Doctor Moreau was a mindless, zombie assassin. Heaven forbid! However, whilst films like The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds are indicative of real talent, the Frankenheimer I met seemed to have had his brains sucked out through a straw. His first action on assuming command of the island was to take down the reproduction of Herbert Draper's Fall of Icarus from my office wall and replace it with a placque that read: "John Frankenheimer - Director".
You see and hear a lot of stuff when you don't exist, and I saw some things during my time as a dog, I can tell you. But I digress!
Working along initially separate but ultimately parallel lines to MKULTRA and Operation Artichoke, the US Navy had begun a secret dolphin project back in 1960, "trying to discover whether the sleek physiology of the animals could be applied to the design of submarines, underwater missiles and torpedoes", according to The Rose-Tinted Menagerie by William M. Johnson (1990), but this program had rapidly grown to encompass more sinister research, including "training of dolphins to attach explosives and electronic eavesdropping devices on enemy ships and submarines".
By 1965, it became obvious that the USA was facing stiff competition from the USSR, raising the specter, according to the CIA, of "a dolphin gap".
[The Russian program, according to the CIA,] "could enable the Soviets to evaluate the potential benefits of developing acoustic jamming countermeasures to US Navy dolphin programs..." In the 1981 issue of US Naval Institute Proceedings, Lt. Commander Douglas R. Burnett, an admiralty attorney, discussed the issue of combat-dolphin escalation between the superpowers. "There may be no choice except to destroy all dolphins," he warned, "or any marine mammal representing a similar threat."
[After years of state-funded research, Dr. Lilly had succeeded in perfecting] a technique of implanting electrodes into the brains of unanaesthetised animals and stimulating the "pain and pleasure sectors" of the mind. After butchering monkeys by the dozen at the National Institute of Mental Health, Lilly concluded that judicious manipulation of these brain areas could inspire joy and well-being, or pain, anger and fear. Indeed, by using the electrodes to deliver reward or punishment stimuli, the animal could be entirely subordinated to human will.
[By the time Adam had gotten involved with the program, Lilly had] turned his attention to dolphins under the pretext of wishing to "communicate" with these intelligent and highly perceptive creatures. To insert electrodes into the brains of the fully-conscious animals, holes were made in the skull with a sharp instrument and a carpenter's hammer [...and...] "the dolphin was held down but tried to jump up at every blow - not because of the pain, but because of the unbearable noise produced by the hammering."
"Despite disappointment and sadness," [the good doctor summed up,] "we had to go on with our research: our responsibilities lie with finding the truth." (Johnson, 1990)
In a brief metatextual note it behooves me to mention that after Marlon Brando expressed his interest in the role of Moreau, I realized a man of his age would need a suitably detailed backstory and furnished the good doctor with an ex-wife, deciding the young Moreau had fallen in love and married the Barbara Steele character from Piranha, and persuaded the great woman herself to reprise the role in some of the only scenes I managed to complete before Frankenheimer took over the shop. Needless to say, Barbara is a veteran of Bava's Black Sunday, in which she essays another mother of darkness, as well as featuring as one of the real stars of Federico Fellini's notorious Eight and a Half.
During the shooting, Babs showed me the screenplay for Fellini's uncompleted sequel Journey to Tulun - the original artwork, for which I came across some years later, gracing the walls of the penthouse in Century City, where I received a free mug courtesy of Hamid Karzai and the CIA. (* See 'Kingdom Come') Tulun concerned the Marcello Mastroiani character's journey to Mexico to take over a big-budget adaptation of Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan. Alejandro Jodorowsky was slated to play himself as the outgoing director and Don Juan turns up disguised as a hotel waiter, evidently living out one of his opaque 'sorcerous tasks'.
The project foundered after Castaneda's brief sojourn in Rome ended with the 'nagual' and his attendant witch retreating stateside, leaving their hotel room and surrounding corridors liberally spattered in rooster blood and odd, ritualistic markings. Both sides blamed each other and Fellini backed away from the project, subsequently exploring the theme of the supernatural in his segment of the obscure anthology film Spirits of the Dead. Fellini's segment (Toby Dammit) not only effectively reprises the ghost from Kill, Baby Kill!, but is perhaps the finest hour Italian horror has to offer as well as the definitive adaptation of Poe's Never Bet the Devil Your Head, which brings us back to the matter of Noel Corbu and the Devil's Bridge... and how come people always seem to end up losing their heads in devil movies anyhow? And should your humble narrator be worried? Again, I digress... or do I?
Further research beyond reason led to genetic engineers crossing Piranha with flying fish in Piranha's sequel. Produced in Italy, this epic marked the debut of James Cameron at the uneasy helm, a nifty turn by a young Lance Henriksen in the Robert Shaw/ Jon Voight -role and a high concept matched only by the pitch for Howling 3: The Marsupials ("This time they have pouches!").
Kevin McCarthy's mad scientist in Joe Dante's Piranha
draws inspiration from the real-life Dr. Lilly.
The producer of Piranha II: Flying Killers! (1982) (aka: The Spawning), Ovidio D. Assonitis, is rumoured to have fired Cameron from the project and completed the film in his absence. Assonitis contributed his own soggy entry to the cycle with Tentacles (1977), in which the titular inconvenient octopus is eventually torn apart by smart killerwhales trained by the US coastguard.
Lamberto Bava, Mario's wayward son, turned in his own variant on the theme in Devouring Waves (1984) (aka Monster Shark, aka Shark!, aka Devil Fish), with the US military secretly funding a creature that was billed as a hybrid of Great White and octopus. The film is accordingly a dog.
Actually, my favourite shark attack scenes take place in an underrated Spanish Mexican co-production Tintorera (1977) (aka Tiger Shark), featuring Susan George (Straw Dogs, Mandingo, etc.) and a score by Basil Pouledouris. The pic barely coheres and has almost nothing going for it beyond three unforgettable attack sequences, featuring real sharks that took me back to some of the things I saw in my youth in False Bay, South Africa all too clearly... But lets not go there right now.
By 1972, the US Navy had deployed a top-secret team of "warrior porpoises" in Vietnam, part of its "Swimmer Nullification Program", yet another Orwellian code name for killing. For at least a year, these experimental dolphins were utilised to protect strategic Vietnamese harbours against infiltration by enemy frogmen. According to Dr. James Fitzgerald, pioneer in dolphin research for the CIA and US Navy, after detecting an intruding diver, the animals were trained to pull off his face mask and flippers, tear the air-supply tubes, and finally "capture him for interrogation." In fact the dolphins serving in Vietnam seem to have been considerably less benign. According to Dr. Michael Greenwood, the Navy's dolphins had also been taught to kill, with knives attached to their flippers and snouts.
Worse was to come however, when dolphins were equipped with large hypodermic syringes loaded with pressurised carbon dioxide. As the dolphin rammed an enemy frogman with the needle, the rapidly expanding gas would cause the victim to literally explode. Years later, it was revealed that the killer dolphins of Vietnam had actually been responsible for the deaths of 40 Vietcong divers, and accidentally, two American servicemen. As one former dolphin trainer for the CIA put it, "they can't tell the difference between a friend and an enemy." Indeed, perhaps the very concept of friend and deadly foe - a duality manifesting itself within the same species - is an alien concept to the dolphin.
Former trainers declared that the dolphins [can] sow mines a 'hundred times faster' than the Navy's elite frogmen [and in] October 1987 six of the experimental animals were deployed in the Persian Gulf to search for... mines. According to the Pentagon, they would also be responsible for security patrols against potential saboteurs around [...] Farsi island which served as a floating base for helicopter gunships and more than 200 American servicemen.
In spring 1989, Rick Trout [dig the name! -R.S.], who worked as a Navy animal trainer between 1985-1988, revealed that the military's dolphins and seals had been starved as part of their training at the Naval Oceans Systems Center in San Diego, California, and even punched and kicked. Official documents show that 13 dolphins have died in Navy hands over the past three years, more than half suffering from starvation or stomach disorders. "My second day on the job I saw a sea-lion kicked in the head for refusing to eat," Trout testified. "I also saw a dolphin punched in the face."
An "independent" government commission has confirmed some of Trout's allegations, yet predictably tame, its final recommendation was that the Navy should capture no more marine mammals until it has hired more veterinarians. It currently holds, trains or deploys at least a 100 marine mammals, with one team of dolphins used to patrol the waters around Trident nuclear submarine bases in the states of Georgia, Connecticut and Washington. However, it is reported that significant numbers of dolphins and sea-lions have been escaping from their military tormentors. According to local conservation officials, several sea lions recently turned up on the beaches of San Miguel island off the coast of Southern California, still wearing Navy equipment harnesses. (Johnson, 1990)
More recently attack dolphins have been deployed in the Persian Gulf, at least two of which went AWOL shortly after the invasion of Iraq. A further test subject, armed with a compressed air weapon capable of firing poisoned darts, escaped from its pen during the havoc of Hurricane Christina and is presumably still at large in Florida's coastal waters. Unperturbed by these mishaps, the US military have broadened their research to include the Great White and in a development right out of Deep Blue Sea announced earlier this year that they have finally perfected what they described as a 'remote control shark', whilst another disillusioned trainer, the neurophysiologist Dr Michael Greenwood, has recently revealed that the US Navy has apparently trained orcas to carry nuclear warheads to enemy shores. "Stopping a 'nuclear whale' on such a mission would be virtually impossible", Greenwood added, to which all I can add is that sadly familiar tagline: 'Be afraid. Be very afraid'.
Lilly's work inspired the 1973 George C. Scott clinker The Day of the Dolphin, which is really how I came to know about the matter and make the series of guesses that lead to my host's bizarre confession. Lilly had been one of the sources for the character of Dr. Moreau in my abortive updating of the Wells' original and I had been particularly intrigued by the way he succeeded in balancing cold-blooded medical barbarism with high minded New Age 'doublethink'. Moreau, after all, was conceived by Wells as both a pacifist and a vegetarian, who sought to eliminate the predatory, carnivorous instincts in mankind and make good 'first one facet and then another of a whole and happy world'. That Moreau fails horribly is as appropriate as it is inevitable, but his road to hell (at least in the novel and my initial screenplay) is paved with typically Wellsian good intentions.
My take on the Moreau saga had accordingly included a promiscuous trio of sex-crazed cetaceans and a couple of underwater scenes later abandoned for budgetary reasons. I had been intending to open the film with a shark attack sequence I had been planning and doodling all my life, a sort of post-nuclear take on Robert Shaw's 'USS Indianapolis' story in Jaws, in which a multinational posse of blue helmets and UN diplomats are dumped in the middle of the ocean after their plane is brought down by electromagnetic pulse and the onset of World War Three. The lead character was re-imagined as a civil rights lawyer, who initially survives by literally climbing over the others to save himself. In my desire to show the ticket-buying public something they had never seen before, I had elected to reverse Spielberg's approach for the crucial 'attack' shots by using real sharks and fake people - kicking mechanical dummies packed with meat and 'blood bags', carefully scaled down to make the sharks appear larger and hence more dangerous than they really were.
An expert maritime second unit had been assembled to effect this including Ron and Valerie Taylor, who had lensed the groundbreaking documentary Blue Water, White Death (1971) and the line producer assigned to the project by New Line, Tim Zinnemann, was himself a veteran of Day of the Dolphin.
During the course of the 1973 production, Tim had come up with a way of moving his star dolphins from one location to another by light aircraft involving a cradle system, later adopted by oceanariums around the world and in the mid-70's had been called on personally to help move some of Dr. Lilly's dolphins from one research facility to another. While hardly the most soft-hearted or ethical of players, Tim nonetheless recalled the incident with disgust. Lilly's dolphins had been in 'terrible shape', he told me, their sides marked with 'weeping scars and infected wounds'.
Judging from the testimony of former trainers in the CIA and US Navy, somewhat less invasive "brainwashing" techniques had been experimentally employed on cetaceans since the mid 1970's. According to my somewhat less than reliable host, marine mammals had been guineapigs in a "Program Plan for Anomalous Mental Phenomena", an effort conducted as part of government investigations into remote viewing and anomalous cognition. A declassified bibliography of research papers completed from 1976 to 1990 includes a 1987 report titled "A Remote Action Investigation with Marine Animals" by Dr. Edwin May and Dr. Charles Pleass that would tend to confirm this. The research was conducted for SRI International, Menlo Park, California, one of the primary research entities alleged to have carried out research for the U.S. military and intelligence service's Project STARGATE, a program that investigated E.S.P (referred to as 'anomalous cognition').
Although the US Navy conceeds that it has been able to "program dolphins and keep them under control for distances up to several miles," it strenuously denies allegations of brainwashing prompting Dr. Farooq Hussain of the Department of Biophysics at King's College, University of London, to ask:
"How is an animal which for centuries has only been recorded for its intelligence and friendliness towards man, now taught by one man to kill another? They must use electrical stimulation of the pain and pleasure centres of the brain in order to induce and reward aggressive behaviour. Of all the depraved and disgusting activities of which man seems capable, this one in particular must rank highly."
[...] It was not until years later however that the increasingly unstable Dr Lilly finally admitted "I was running a concentration camp for my friends." (Johnson, 1990)
By now, Lilly had succeeded in convincing both himself and subsequently his loyal disciple Adam that they were being telepathically directed by an alien consciousness he referred to as (SSI), short for Solid State Intelligence, a supercomputer-like entity in the much the same techno-mystical vein as Philip K. Dick's VALIS. SSI was of a malevolent nature, eternally at odds with a second extraterrestrial network known as ECCO, an acronym for "Earth Coincidence Control Office", that Lilly thought was responsible for all the fortuitous coincidences in life.
One evening after a particularly powerful shot Lilly was sitting watching the Dick Cavett Show, when an alien representative of ECCO appeared and "with some advanced form of psychic surgery" bloodlessly removed the good doctor's penis and nonchalantly handed it to him on a plate. "They've cut off my penis," Lilly exclaimed. When his long-suffering wife Toni pointed out that his penis was still intact, he immediately rationalized the situation by deciding the ET's had replaced his normal human penis with a mechanical version, that could become voluntary erect when he wanted it to.
After Lilly attempted to call the White House to warn the President about an impending alien Apocalypse, the powers that be realized the good doctor had finally flipped his lid, and tried to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Unfortunately, Lilly was an old friend of the hospital's director, who saw to it he was released and after a second bid failed, he was allowed to remain at large, continuing his ever-escalating regimen of 'vitamin K'.
When their sources started to dry up, Adam and Dr. John were left with no choice other than to start manufacturing the precious 'elixir vitae' for themselves, in order to maintain contact with their "space brothers" from the Pleides. After leaving the employ of the US government, Lilly supplemented his income as bestselling New Age author and 'scientific advisor' to George Lucas by pushing Vitamin K. to the rich and the feckless. It was the perfect pitch. Not only did the drug induce a lucid induction state similar to an out of body or near-death experience, but it reduced hair loss and liquified fat cells. Of course, it also drove you completely insane, but that's par for the course in Hollywood.
No-one surfs forever. The Inland Revenue inspectors and rampant paranoia had finally broken up the cosy scene back in Aspen. Dr. John had decamped to Hawaii, where he lived out his declining years in a state of advanced dementia and Adam had fallen back on his friends in the Sufi movement to blag his way to Rennes, where he had run aground on Celia's hilltop. It wasn't all bad, he insisted. Although he could barely hold it together from one shot to the next, he believed he had arrested the aging process and succeeded in holding back the growth of the cancer cells in his body by injecting ketamine directly into his tumours. Accordingly, his personality was in a constant state of flux and while I never did get to find out who 'Jim' was for sure, I suspect the 'brother' he referred to was supposed to be Christ. Either that or Jim Morrison. I doubt he could tell the difference and by now imagined he had been both of them in some previous incarnation.
To be honest, my attention had begun to drift. At some point in the course of Adam's unburdening, I had begun to while away the time by snapping the necks off the ampoules and pouring them up my nose to see if it had any effect. I understand the full 'ketamine experience' can only be achieved by mainlining the shit, but I have a few house rules of my own and staying clear of intraveineous drug use is one of them. Whatever that stuff was, it was unadulterated and before long I found I was no longer in my body but listening to Adam's monologue from somewhere up on the ceiling.
At first I predictably thought 'Shit. I'm dead,' but then it occurred to me that I was still connected safely to my body, which was comfortably resting on the couch before the fire. This was very reassuring and bore out at least some of the claims made by the good doctor. A sort of funnel had opened in the ceiling that hadn't been there in 'real life', and when Adam launched into a very bad rendition of 'Riders on the Storm', I began to move towards it, anxious to excuse myself of my present company and try out some of the possibilities inherent in the lucid astral state in which I apparently found myself.
This being Rennes, the funnel opened into an octagonal shaft or stairwell that spiraled down and down into glowing darkness, there being no difference between up and down any more, nor was I alone in this strange limbo. What looked like big day-glow Geckos or Salamanders scampered past, clinging to walls marked by ancient glyphs and ciphers that became alien, antehuman circuitry before my eyes, suckered feet sending out random lizard signals through the trembling matrix. Then the shaft opened abruptly into a vast cavity that lay at the heart of life, where the eight-limbed magna mater waited for me, venomous, twining serpents, alligators and other creatures unknown jostling to suckle at multiple breasts, that were really spinnerets and wove a web that ran through everything...
"On leaving the Santa Croce church, I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall."
- Stendhal, Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817)
By the fall of 1996, I was back in River City at a loose end and predictably lovelorn. Channel Four had passed politely on the project despite my disgruntled writer 'friend's best efforts to cut the shambling, unfocused treatment's hair and put it in a suit. Nonetheless, I went the extra mile as usual for il maestro and broke out the Sunday best when The Stendahl Syndrome premiered at the National Film Theatre on the south bank, a privilege never granted to his work before or since and indicative of a formal, albeit grudging acceptance of his 'ouvre' by the wider critical community.
After Dario's deal fell apart Stateside and Bridget Fonda parted company with the project, he had taken the project home, where The Stendahl Syndrome was funded by Berlusconi, the closest il maestro ever came to achieving something like state subsidy for his work, enabling him to shoot on location in Florence's Uffizi gallery and put together a dream team of all-Italian talent including cinematography by Guiseppe Rotunno and an original orchestral score by Ennio Morricone. Asia had stepped into Miss Fonda's shoes, continuing the abusive father-daughter director-actress relationship queasily embarked upon with Trauma, and now taken to a new extreme with the waif-like actress forced to endure extended scenes of rape, torture and degradation.
While her age worked against her credibility as the tough plainclothes cop she was supposed to be playing, Asia brought with her a vulnerability and an unnerving borderline anorexic appearance that mirrored her father's. It now became clear that Darios parting of the ways with former partner, Daria Nicolodi, and subsequent focus on their daughter had marked a sea change in the underlying sexual politics of his work. While his early films almost exclusively revolved around male artists battling castrating mothers and diseased sisterhoods, the emergence of Asia as the central figure in his latter work marked an accompanying shift to masculine psychos, repositioning the threat as a virile, inherently patriarchal force, against whose dominance the lead must struggle to win not only her freedom but define her shattered personality.
The film's premise was promising enough, its title derived from Stendahl's observation that exposure to great art can be hazardous to your health, unleashing destabilizing, repressed emotions or actively infecting the viewer with the diseased thoughts and emotions of the artist. Asia plays a unnervingly youthful detective investigating a series of murders inspired by the real life 'il Mostro' killings in Florence. After an initial encounter with the killer in the crowded Uffizi gallery, her character suffers a psychological breakdown and literally falls into one of the paintings, Brueghal's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the boundary between so-called 'real life' and the work of art collapsing irretrievably. Seeing that opening reel on a big screen with a packed, expectant audience was a breathtaking experience, that took me back to my very first night at the Scala but after that it was all downhill.
Asia's ability to enter and experience the paintings at first hand is never integrated in the plotline and vanishes right out of the flick approximately half-way through, roughly the same time with the lead psycho taking a dive, which robs the film of much of its dramatic tension. The second half becomes a gore-free retread of Tenebrae, and Asia battles to engage our sympathies to an inherently unsympathetic character, required to serve as both victim and killer, while enduring a ceaseless barrage of flat lighting, trashy wigs and bad hair as if Dario were somehow trying to deliberately destroy her beauty, a suspicion further underscored by the scene in which the Thomas Kretschmann character cuts at her face with a razor blade.
The Morricone score is one of the great composers least inspired, with one increasingly annoying motif endlessly repeated between a jangling, swirling fuzz of discordant tones, that makes one long for the glory days of Goblin or, God help me, even Keith Emerson. The last nail in the textural coffin turns out to be Rotunno's unaccountably static camerawork, as if the master has left his equally famous and respected d.p. to just get on with it and foresworn his usual kinetic style in the process. Even the murders are off-beam with the decision to use the sort of handgun favored by 'il Mostro' instead of cutlery, further hampered by some of the worst CGI work known to man. The final result is undoubtedly one of Dario's most personal and bizarrely redemptive works, but the cumulative effect for the casual viewer is more like watching paint dry than suffering the giddy rush of being sucked into the painting itself.
Accordingly, the film sank like a stone at the box office and suffered the ignomy of being released direct to video in the United States by Troma, the only distribution company prepared to touch its broken body with a barge pole.
Dario was still riding high on his recent 'discovery' by the art house audience, and if the punters seemed somewhat reluctant to speak up at the accompanying Q and A, he failed to notice. He seemed more relaxed than I'd seen him before in public, effortlessly skating around some sticky questions from the arts maven chairing the discussion. He didn't bat an eye when she nailed him with the inevitable:
"Dario, why do you feel the need to kill so many women in your movies?"
"Why?" There was a momentary hush. Then il maestro smiled as if as a particularly pleasant memory: "Because women are so... so pretty, so beautiful! I like!"
I didn't know what to say so I didn't stick around. My career and love life were little more than a pleasant memory themselves at that point in time, and Stendahl had felt like less than a full meal, at least it hadn't filled me quite the way I'd wanted it to, the way I had come to imagine nothing could again. I pushed through the crowd gathering around the bar, only to change my mind in mid-flow and decide to get the hell out instead. Which is when I saw her. I didn't even know she was there and she had made no effort to show for the Q and A, but she must have been looking in my direction and as I turned our gaze met.
She was the face on the screen, the woman in the picture. She was il maestro's daughter and for a moment that look of fear in her eyes seemed genuine.
"Ri - chard...?"
I can't remember if I said anything. All I know is the crowd seemed to melt and just for once there was nothing to keep us away from each other.
"You've gotta help me... you've gotta get me out of this place..."
I saw Alan Jones' amused face amongst the onlookers and I recalled that long ago moment, when I had first glimpsed Asia's eyes as the Teutonic knight knocked her mask to one side with his spear in La Chiesa, and how the nosy old bugger had simultaneously caught my outstretched hand by the wrist and told me to put out my smoke. But it was Asia's hand that held mine now and there was no objective difference any more between 'real life' and the movies except for one little detail. Living it out first hand was a big improvement over just being an observer...
"Anything you say, sister..."
My fingers pressed flat against the cold glass of an oddly convenient fire exit.
"I don't care where we go. Let's just go, okay?"
The door gave and the dream enfolded me, as if instead of stepping onto the darkened embankment I had passed passed through the mirror into another world where it was all true, where all things were possible. I remember a full moon, fuller than I'd seen it before and a white curtain fluttering and belling like the wings of an angel in the wind. It was somewhere just south of Hallow'een 1996 and for just a while, I was actually happy in a Richard kind of way, safe and secure in the arms of the mother of tears...
The Zone - 4.55 pm September 4th 2007
More Fulci DVDs left on the perimeter fence - again the choice of titles is startling apt. Could it be some kind of warning? Find out in Lachrymae - The Final Chapter, in which your humble narrator will endevor to tie up the threads and reveal just why the black mother is black, unless this whole site disappears down the electron plughole first. Will your narrator be punished like Tiresias for posting this in public, for writing for the 'volgari e non literati', for choosing a popular medium to address his fellow citizens and thus breaking the laws of 'silentium' in the process ?
F***k! I hope not.
Let's see... I mean it's been pretty damn lively around here, I can tell you!
'Til then this is Richard Stanley, the last free man in West London wishing each and every one of you in this burdgeoning tribe a happy Hallow'een! May the dark angels watch over you always!
Continued in part IV
Every dog man one of you.
Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. On the subject of which I'd like to to acknowledge some of my sources...
- Gorightly, A. John Lilly, Ketamine and The Entities From ECCO, published in The Beast of Adam Gorightly: Collected Rantings (1992-2004), Virtualbookworm.com Publishing, 2005
- Hammons, S., Navy dolphins may be deployed: Did secret ESP research involve them?, 2007
- Johnson, K.M. The Rose-Tinted Menagerie, Inidescent Publishing, 1990