Happy Crowleymas everyone. On today’s date, October 12th in 1875, the British occultist, poet, mountain climber, artist and eccentric was born. “The Great Beast 666,” as he liked to think of himself, was voted the “seventy-third greatest Briton of all time” in a 2002 BBC poll along with Johnny Rotten, J.R.R. Tolkien and Julie Andrews.
And here’s a timely item: The 1920s site of Crowley’s “Abbey of Thelema” in Cefalù, Italy is for sale. This dump can be yours for a mere 850,000 euros!
You can see a photo gallery from the real estate listing here.
One of the wall paintings by Crowley at the Abbey, via Hunter 333’s Flickrstream
Below, a goofy episode of Scariest Places on Earth that focuses on The Abbey of Thelema. There are some pretty hilarious moments if you can wade through the boring parts. I noticed that they’ve got edits from an obscure, early Psychic TV video intercut here whenever they want to indicate evil or malevolence. What’s with the voice over???
Part II is here. After the jump, a closer look at the Abbey of Thelema’s ruins.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ll tell you of the time I saw one. It was summer, I was 18 and working in a 7/11.
Early one morning, at seven-thirty to be precise, I was awoken by someone pinching my toe. There, clearly at the foot of my bed, was my great aunt, dressed in a dark overcoat, as if she had somehow arrived to see me.
“I’ve come to say goodbye,” she said, but never opened her mouth.
We looked at each other for several moments. Then I rubbed my eyes, and she was gone.
Fifty miles away, in a hospital ward, my great aunt died at exactly seven-thirty in the morning. How to explain it, I can’t say, but there it is.
I’ve always had a fondness for ghosts stories, tales of horror and things unknown - they are fine entertainments. Of late, I’ve been collecting such stories recorded in journals and biographies, which often reveal a similarity in the haunting or, in the telling of the tale.
The following come from the journal of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the great writer of supernatural tales, Algernon Blackwood, a man whose stories chilled my schoolboy days. Like the tale of my great aunt, there is a similarity to these tales, of ghosts returning to visit the living.
IX. - Journal
Geneva, Sunday, 18th August, 1816
See Apollo’s Sexton,* who tells us many mysteries of his trade. We talk of Ghosts. Neither Lord Byron nor M.G. L. seem to believe in them; and they both agree, in the very face of reason, that none could believe in ghosts without believing in God. I do not think that all the persons who profess to discredit these visitations, really discredit them; or, if they do in the daylight, are not admonished, by the approach of loneliness and midnight, to think more respectfully of the world of shadows.
Lewis recited a poem, which he had composed at the request of the Princess of Wales. The Princess of Wales, he premised, was not only a believer in ghosts, but in magic and witchcraft, and asserted, that prophecies made in her youth had been accomplished since. The tale was of a lady in Germany.
This lady, Minna, had been exceedingly attached to her husband, and they had made a vow that the one who died first should return after death to visit the other as a ghost. She was sitting one day alone in her chamber, when she heard an unusual sound of footsteps on the stairs. The door opened, and her husband’s spectre, gashed with a deep wound across the forehead, an din military habiliments, entered. She appeared startled at the apparition; and the ghost told her, that when he should visit her in future, she would hear a passing bell toll, and these words distinctly uttered in her ear, “Minna, I am here.” On inquiry, it was found that her husband had fallen in battle on the very day she was visited by the vision. The intercourse between the ghost and the woman continued for some time, until the latter laid aside all terror, and indulged herself in the affection which she had felt for him while living. One evening she went to a ball, and permitted her thoughts to be alienated by the attentions of a Florentine gentleman, more witty, more graceful, and more gentle, as it appeared to her, than any person she had ever seen. As he was conducting her through the dance, a death-bell tolled. Minna lost in fascination of the Florentine’s attentions, disregarded, or did not hear the sound. A second peal, louder and more deep, startled the whole company, when Minna heard the ghost’s accustomed whisper, and raising her eyes, saw in an opposite mirror the reflection of the ghost, standing over her. She is said to have died of terror.
* Mr. G. Lewis, so named in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers - M. S.
The second story comes from Mike Ashley’s Starlight Man, the biography of the fantastic writer, Algernon Blackwood. In this extract, it is 1887 and the young Blackwood, just in his early twenties, has taken a keen interest in the Society of Psychical Research, an organization established by “some of the most notable men in the land and devoted to the series exploration of psychic phenomena.”
This group can be traced back to the Ghost Club, which was established at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1850. By 1882, this club had galvanized into the Society of Psychical Research (SPR), and conisted of “highly respected men - no charlatans. And early members to the SPR were of similar stature - Lord Tennyson, William James, John Ruskin, W. E. Gladstone, Mark twain and Charles L. Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) plus eight Fellows of the Royal Society, including the later Nobel Prize winner Joseph Thomson.”
Blackwood’s father Sir Arthur Blackwood was loosely involved with the group, but only as a debunker of spiritualism. Any evidence that the group provided to confirm Sir Arthur’s no-nonsense, rational view of life was to be commended. However, for Algernon, stories of ghosts, ghouls and things-that-went-bump-in-the-night proved far too attractive for the young man.
Of course, Algernon went on to become world famous for his chilling stories of the supernatural and the occult - as well as his more spiritual and esoteric tales, including the original book for Edward Elgar’s Starlight Express, which later formed the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. In 1887, Algernon was interested in joining the SPR after reading one of the group’s books
This was Phantasms of the Living (1886) and it was a book that young Algernon found fascinating. It includes several cases that he adapted for his own stories. Perhaps the best known was a case reported by Lord Brougham (1778-1868) while at Edinburgh University in 1799. He had made a pact with a university friend that whoever died first should try to appear to the other. Brougham was one day relaxing in his bath when he saw his friend sitting on a nearby chair. The vision soon faded but he made a note of the occurrence. Soon afterwards he returned to Edinburgh, only to receive a letter to say hat his friend had died in India. The core of the story is the same as Blackwood’s “Keeping his Promise”, also set in Edinburgh, where a dead friend keeps an appointment.
Blackwood rarely mentioned his involvement with the SPR, though he touched upon the subject in his last television talk “How I Became Interested in Ghosts”, in which he discussed the investigation of a haunted house. Blackwood is a superb horror writer, and is better than H. P. Lovercraft, who once said of him:
“Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences..”
He lived a rich and full life, worked at dozens of jobs, including farmer, undercover spy during the First World War, adventurer, writer, and lastly as a regular presenter of the BBC in the 1940s. His stories of the supernatural and the unknown are amongst the greatest written. They have also provided episodes for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and his classic tale “Ancient Sorceries” was more than an influence on Val Lewton’s The Cat People.
With Halloween coming these stories may provide some atmosphere to all that Trick and Treating.
Now behave, here’s The Fall.
A couple of months ago Damon Albarn premiered his new work Dr Dee: An English Opera as part of the Manchester International Festival. As the name would suggest, Dr Dee concerns the life of the Elizabethan mathematician, cartographer and magician John Dee, with original music composed by Albarn (singing and conducting a chamber group live on stage throughout the show). Well, maybe it was because I was so blown away by Bjork’s magical Biophilia show a few days earlier at the festival, but I found the opera to be a massive let down. You can read more of my thoughts on Dr Dee An English Opera here.
One of the main complaints levelled at Albarn’s production was that its oblique nature did nothing to explain the fascinating story of John Dee to an audience unfamiliar with the man. I was lucky enough to have some knowledge in advance and was able to spot some of the key moments in Dee’s life - but even then the narrative felt scrambled and made little use of some incredible source material (namely the man’s incredible life story). That’s despite this promising write up in the MIF’s program:
There was once an Englishman so influential that he defined how we measure years, so quintessential that he lives on in Shakespeare’s words; yet so shrouded in mystery that he’s fallen from the very pages of history itself.
That man was Dr Dee – astrologer, courtier, alchemist, and spy.
Queen Elizabeth’s Magician - John Dee is a 2002 television show produced by the UK’s Channel 4 for their Masters of Darkness series, and tells the man’s incredible story in a much more accessible way. While perhaps not revealing anything that the more avid Dee student wouldn’t already know, the show is informative and entertaining (if slightly cheesy) and serves as a good introduction to the man and his legacy. It’s also a good watch for fans of Alan Moore, who appears throughout the show and talks of Dee’s magical practices and their influence - and the three-note “spooky” sax motif is more memorable than anything in Albarn’s opera:
Many actors are superstitious. Some like Peter Bull kept a collection of Teddy bears to bring him good luck; others like Jack Lemmon said the words, “It’s magic time,” before filming each scene. But few have ever been quite as obsessed with superstitions and the occult as comedy genius, Peter Sellers.
Sellers’ introduction to the Occult came via fellow Goon, Michael Bentine, the “Watford-born Peruvian,” who had grown-up in a household where seances and table-turning were regularly practiced. Not long after they first met, Bentine told Sellers of his psychic abilities - how during the Second World War, when Bentine served in the Royal Air Force, he had been able to tell which of his comrades would die before a bombing mission. Bentine claimed if he saw a skull instead of his colleague’s features, then he knew this person would be killed. How often Bentine was correct in these predictions is not known. No matter, Sellers was greatly impressed by the shock-haired comic and was soon obsessed with all things paranormal.
From then on, Sellers collected superstitions, as easily as others collect stamps. He refused to wear green or act with anyone dressed in the color. If anyone gave him something sharp, he gave them a penny. He read his horoscopes every day so he would always know what he should do.
Sellers often said he had no idea who he was: “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.” This was his way of renouncing any responsibility for his actions. He claimed he found comfort and stability in consulting clairvoyants and fortune tellers, which again only underlines the fact he did know who he was - a control freak, who wanted power over his future. It was inevitable, therefore, that once under the spell of sooth-sayers and psychics, Sellers was open to fraudsters, tricksters and con-men.
The clairvoyant who had most influence over his life was Maurice Woodruff, the famed TV and newspaper astrologer, whose syndicated column reached over fifty million people at the height of his career. Woodruff received over 5,000 letters a week, asking for advice and had a Who’s Who of of celebrity clients, including composer Lionel Bart and actor Diana Dors. Woodruff had famously predicted the death of President John F. Kennedy and the end of the Vietnam War. Sellers was devoted to Woodruff, consulting him before he accepted any film roles, and regularly had tarot readings performed over the telephone. But Woodruff was heavily in debt and open to the persuasion of earning a little cash when film studios asked him to suggest film scripts to Sellers.
One famous tale, recounts how Woodruff was asked to suggest the initials of director Blake Edwards as being very important to Sellers. Unfortunately, Sellers failed to connect ‘B.E.’ with the famous Hollywood director. On return to the Dorchetser Hotel, his usual residence when in London, Sellers was smitten by the sight of a beautiful, young blonde-haired woman at reception. When he enquired who was this vision of loveliness, he was told Britt Ekland. Sellers recalled Woodruff’s prediction and married Ekland within weeks.
More on the paranormal Peter Sellers plus bonus clip after the jump…