Friday, 31 May 2013

Top Fifteen Hammers:
Part # 2.

Posted as part of the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon.

10. Cash on Demand (1961)

At the risk of making them sound like a particularly successful biscuit factory, there is something about the level of craftsmanship and quality control Hammer maintained during their peak years that really sets their films apart. A combination of technical know-how and creative self-belief that allowed them to take to take an unambitious b-picture like this one and turn it into something special – an engrossing, affecting and quietly timeless little number, with all the requisite elements for a fine, low budget motion picture, all in their proper place.

In lesser hands, Jacques Gillies’ source play could easily have become fodder for a teeth-grinding exercise in quota quickie tedium, centring as it does on one of the more polite bank heists in cinema history, as bullish conman Andre Morell forcibly intrudes into the hermetic world of tyrannical suburban bank manager Peter Cushing. Whilst the film’s setting may be quaint however, its crime elements are excellently handled, exemplary in their edge-of-seat tension building, generating a sense of menace and suspense here that the makers of higher octane thrillers would do well to match.

That aside though, it’s the performances that really make it stand out. Seeing Cushing and Morell – two of my favourite actors – butt heads is very much the equivalent of a British character actor title fight, with both really punching on top form. Always a genial and domineering presence when he’s given a lead role to sink his teeth into, Morell brings the same sense of authority and determination that made him so memorable in ‘Plague of the Zombies’ and the BBC version of ‘Quatermass & The Pit’, but tempered here with a caddish, upper-crust kind of destructive criminality that makes his character a truly nasty piece of work. Cushing, for his part, always excelled at playing torn, schizophrenic characters – men either conflicted and uncertain, or else hiding their true nature behind a wall of repression – and here, in the character of Henry Fordyce, he finds an opportunity to fully express this theme within a real world context, leading to what is arguably one of his best ever performances.

Fordyce’s Dickens-inspired character arc, which sees him rediscovering his long-buried capacity for human feeling by means of a Scrooge-like last reel rebirth, could easily have been played as bit of cloying sentimentality, but Cushing instead adopts a deeper, more subtle approach to the part, making sure that hints of Fordyce’s humanity break through his shell even during his most intensely dislikeable moments. For all his evident faults and petty cruelties, Fordyce’s eccentric gestures and slight uncertainties of judgement serve all the times to suggest a parallel, internalised world in which he is indeed a man who feels and loves and does what he believes to be right, away from the eyes of his cowed employees, and probably even those of his unseen family. It’s the same essential key note that is repeated throughout Cushing’s numerous portrayals of tormented villainy, reminding us that though a man may be capable of monstrous acts, there is no such thing as a man who is a monster; that within the breast of even the most craven, despicable wretch, a human heart still beats. A fairly basic point, whether examined through the prism of a horror, a crime story or a straight drama, but it is rare to see it expressed with the level of lyricism and conviction Cushing brings to his modest part in this none-more-modest movie.

9. Brides of Dracula (1960)

Although it’s probably one of the best-loved Hammer horrors amongst fans, there’s something about ‘Brides of Dracula’ that has never quite sat well with me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I really, really like it – hence its position on this list. But something about it bugs me. I guess I see it as film of two halves really; the first half, set in and around Castle Meinster is admittedly stunning, no question. One of the most awe-inspiring bits of high gothic artistry ever produced in popular cinema. The sheer depth and scale of the illusion Fisher, Robinson, Asher et al create here from a few sets, a few matte paintings and a few lighting effects is truly remarkable, probably the zenith of Bray-era Hammer’s always excellent production design, with a grand and tragic narrative to match, including a devastating turn from Martita Hunt as the mother of our errant vampire. Not that making ‘60s gothic horror movies was a competitive sport or anything, but if it ever came down to an instant KO, bare-knuckled tournament, I think the opening half hour of ‘Brides..’ takes down Corman, and maybe even beats Mario Bava on points; incredible stuff.

After that though, for me at least, it kinda gets a bit lost. All that faffing about at the boarding school kinda saps the film’s momentum and, whilst I’ve frequently heard it praised elsewhere, I can’t help but find the conclusion a bit of a let-down. Yeah, the stuff with Van Helsing cauterising his infected wound is pretty damn cool, but I get frustrated at the titular brides’ failure to do much beyond just stand around, and the method of Count Meinster’s final demise just strikes me as bloody silly – the genesis of Hammer’s unfortunate tradition of killing off their vampires in increasingly stupid and anti-climactic ways, swiftly leading to a situation where their arch-fiends seem so vulnerable it’s no wonder Dracula spent most of his later outings lurking about in a darkened crypt. Between running water, hawthorn bushes, inconveniently shaped shadows and randomly angled pieces of wood, just walking down the high street must have been an obstacle course of death for the poor sod. But anyway – ‘Brides of Dracula’. Um, to be honest, I haven’t seen this one for a while at the time of writing – probably long overdue for a re-watch, so don’t take me to task too harshly if you disagree with my assessment.

8. She (1965)

Ok, so you’d be hard-pressed to really defend this one as a legitimately good film – by any reasonable standard it’s rambling, shoddy, unconvincing and dated. But on the level of pure cinematic comfort food, it’s perfect.

Claiming it as “the closest thing Hammer ever did to an Indiana Jones movie” seems a bit wrong-headed given the film’s origin in the H. Rider Haggard novel that at least partially formed the basis for the exotic pulp adventure aesthetic that the creators of the Jones films drew upon so heavily all those years later, but nonetheless, it’s a good one-line summation of what’s going on here, and Peter Cushing, in his tougher-than-usual portrayal of Haggard’s Major Horace Holly, is every inch the precursor of Harrison Ford, rocking stubble, leathers and an ever-present hipflask (pity he wasn’t around for casting when Sean Connery got the dad part in ‘..Last Crusade’).

Post-dubbed Ursula Andress doesn’t do a lot for me here I’m sad to say, but I suppose there’s only do much you can do with the role of a stone-faced 1,000 year old goddess, and needless to say, the rest of the cast more than more up for her lack of charisma – Morell! Lee! And, uh… Cribbins?! Well, why the hell not. It’s even kinda nice to see John Richardson from ‘Black Sunday’ as the juvenile lead, even if he is characteristically annoying. Likewise, you may chuckle at the polystyrene boulders and wobbly columns, but I’d defy you to make a better film set in the uncharted wilds of North Africa without leaving Herefordshire – well done people! (Actually it seems they headed over the Isreal for some of the desert stuff, but, uh… my point still stands, more or less.)

A perfect exemplar of my firmly-held belief that nothing that begins with Peter Cushing and Bernard Cribbins instigating a brawl in a belly-dancing club can possibly be bad, ‘She’ is utterly undemanding, hugely enjoyable, and basically I want it on TV every rainy afternoon from now until the end of eternity.

7. The Reptile (1966)

Another one I’ve written about previously, but what else can I tell you friends - I love The Reptile. I mean, you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking that a b-level production with a plot synopsis that barely extends beyond “there is a reptile” might not add up to much, but as was so often the case during Hammer’s classic years, John Gilling and his collaborators really rise above. Fetid Cornish moorland atmosphere, weird echoes of high imperial decadence, Michael Ripper finally getting to step up to the plate for a steadfast hero role, Jacqueline Pierce’s big dark, dreamy eyes, and of course, Noel Willman’s sitar-smashing frenzy – one of the most brilliant and beserk moments in any Hammer picture. Yeah, an evening with this Reptile is time well spent.

6. Captain Clegg (1962)

So, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this one: how do you fancy watching an early ‘60s Terrence Fisher film based on Russell Thorndike’s Edwardian pulp classic ‘Dr. Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh’, in which Peter Cushing plays a notorious pirate captain who narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose, reinventing himself as the mild-mannered vicar of the rural Kent parish in which his former self is ‘buried’, and from which he now orchestrates an intricate smuggling operation? With the help of cohorts including coffin-maker Michael Ripper and two-fisted libertine Oliver Reed, Clegg and his gang gallop across the night-haunted marshes in the guise of luminous, skeleton-suited ‘marsh phantoms’, running rings around His Majesties sour-faced revenue-men in a noble quest to raise the living standards of the local peasantry and provide the upstanding folk of South-East England with a steady supply of cheap booze, aaaand… well, basically, if your aesthetic sensibilities are anything like mine, you are probably straining at the leash by this point to watch what surely must be one of the GREATEST FILMS OF ALL-TIME, much as I was before I finally tracked down a decent copy of this harder-to-find-than-it-should-be Hammer epic and sat down with some nut-brown ale to experience what was sure to be a rare state of Bodhisattva-like oneness with the universe.

As it turns out, the reality of ‘Captain Clegg’ (better known in the US as ‘Night Creatures’) couldn’t possibly live up to my off-the-scale expectations, but that didn’t stop it from still being really, really good. With both feet firmly planted in the tradition of Hammer’s “pirate movies without pirate ships” half-term swashbucklers, there is perhaps a tad more theatrical faffing about and inconsequential toing and froing going on here than 21st century viewers may be comfortable with, but that aside, there is still so, so much to enjoy. Even though it’s not strictly a horror film, the fog-shrouded nocturnal atmosphere, the fixation with graves, executions and premature burials and the sight of the ‘marsh phantoms’ charging across the moors like precursors to the Blind Dead all add up to one of Hammer’s best ever gothic fantasias – an approach that is very much in keeping with the feel of Thorndike’s decidedly weird stories. Seeing Cushing transform from an absent-minded country parson to a merciless criminal gang leader in a split second is a sheer joy, and when the great man takes up his blade for a bit of chandelier-bothering swashbucklage towards the end, well… I’m certainly a happy camper. I probably don’t need to tell you that the supporting cast are superb, the production design is second to none, and aside from anything else, how great is it to see a Hammer film in which we’re invited to cheer on a bunch of booze-sozzled lags, decadent romantics and scurvy outlaws as they get one over on the forces of austere state bureaucracy? It’s like a version of ‘Whiskey Galore’ where shit just got real, and another kick in the pants to those over-reaching auteurists who’d seek to identify Fisher directly with the puritanical morality of his horror films.

To be concluded...

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Top Fifteen Hammers:
Part # 1.

Posted as part of the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon.

For no reason at all beside the fact that I enjoy making pointless lists, and that thinking about Hammer horror films makes me feel warm and cozy as I plod through the dreary complexities of the working week, I’ve recently found myself casually pondering what my favourite entries in the studio’s filmography are, and why. Just a bit of harmless, everyday nerd-think, but I thought it might translate into some nice, easy-going blog posts to keep things ticking over until I feel like I’ve got the energy to handle some more heavy duty movie review-age.

Not that cutting things down to a workable top fifteen was easy, mind you. I mean, I can reel off my top three at the drop of a hat (long-term readers with good memories may recall what they are), but beyond that, things get a bit murky. With the untouchable top level out of the way, my second tier of Hammer favourites consists of a large number of movies (most of the Frankensteins and Mummys, a few of the better Draculas, the Carmilla/Karnstein films and so on) that are just plain good - so consistent and enjoyable that it’s difficult to really pick any one over the others. They all do exactly what horror movies are supposed to do whilst still including enough quirks, nuances and unforgettable moments to make each one unique, and for that I am very grateful.

Perhaps inevitably therefore, the list below swings somewhat in the direction of the studios more eccentric and low-key productions - they being the ones that tend to stick most strongly in my memory. But that’s not to say that I couldn’t happily watch their more ‘routine’ offerings all day for the rest of my life and have a perfectly nice time in the process.

I’d imagine that most of this blog’s readers probably have more than a passing familiarity with the Hammer catalogue, but if there are any newcomers in the audience, I hope my list might lead you to some good entry points into the world of these films. And for the old hands out there, well, dumb lists like this are always a good way to spark discussion, and I always like talkin’ Hammer, so by all means feel free to let rip in the comments box.

Oh, and before we begin, probably also worth mentioning that this list is by no means supposed to be read as a complete or final judgement on the Hammer canon. Given prolific nature of the studio’s output, there are still plenty of their films that I’ve never even seen, so who knows, perhaps there are some whole other top twenty lurking out there that I’ve not yet even become acquainted with… and what a nice feeling that is.

So without further ado…

15. The Gorgon (1964)

 I wrote about this one pretty extensively here, and for me it remains one of Hammer’s most romantic, impenetrable and philosophically unglued outings, as the limitations imposed by a rather poorly thought out supernatural conceit are countered by one of the studio’s grandest fairytale gothic production designs, a chillingly ambiguous Cushing performance, and some soul-aching ruminations on the nature of entropy and confinement. Not exactly a good choice for a laugh and a few beers, but compelling viewing all the same.

14. The Vampire Lovers (1970)

 Amid all the misfires, oddities and strange diversions that comprise Hammer’s catalogue of vampire films, ‘The Vampire Lovers’ is one of the more straight-forward entries, and also, I think, one of the best. Delivering pretty much exactly what you’d expect in terms of lavish Victoriana, nocturnal cemetery hi-jinks, furtive hints of lesbianism and craggy-faced puritanical ass-kicking, Roy Ward Barker’s initial take on the Carmilla mythos essentially defines the agenda for the ‘70s Euro-vampire movie, setting a bar that the continent’s other purveyors of such material could proceed to soar above or mambo under as they saw fit. Although it never really achieves anything exceptional (beyond a gentle bit of first-time-in-a-British-horror same sex petting), ‘..Lovers’ is solid as a brick shithouse - as generic and satisfying as horror movies get.

13. Demons of the Mind (1972)

As noted above, most of my favourite Hammer films serve to evoke a warm, nostalgic atmosphere that I find very reassuring. This nasty little number though is a different kettle of fish entirely. With disorientating, bombastic direction from Peter Sykes and a script from the reliably out-to-lunch Christopher Wicking, ‘Demons of the Mind’ is a decidedly un-Hammer-like production that seems to be aiming instead to smash a hole in the side of your head, draining out the bits of your mind that think about the weather and what’s for dinner, and replacing them with endless close-ups of Robert Hardy’s sweaty moustachioed face, screaming in tormented delirium. Coming on like ‘The Black Torment’ on steroids, or a dark old house murder mystery spiked with some lethal extract of psychotropic mould, this psychologically assaultive, dark-family-secrets country estate slasher farrago simply defies description. Much like Coppola’s ‘Dementia 13’ a decade previously, you’ll know you’re onto a bit of a rum do when Patrick Mcgee turns up halfway through and actually seems like one of the more relaxed and well-balanced individuals on-screen.

12. The Lost Continent (1968)

Probably the biggest WTF in the Hammer filmography, this ill-starred Dennis Wheatley adaptation is a colossally misguided, schizophrenically inconsistent, directionless, crippled-at-birth vanity project disasterpiece that I’m afraid to say I absolutely love. The subject of so much behind the scenes aggro that it nearly tore Hammer apart, with James Carreras eventually stepping in to forcibly shut down his son Michael’s floundering production, the film that eventually emerged is so astonishingly strange, I’m surprised it hasn’t been cited more often as a bone fide ‘what-the-hell-were-they-thinking’ cult classic. I could say a lot more about this one, and hopefully at some point I will, but for the moment let us simply shake our heads in disbelief as a narrative framework seemingly requisitioned from a cynical ‘70s airport disaster novel stumbles headfirst into an anything-goes world of ridiculous stop motion sea monsters, fanatical Spanish Inquisitors, random tentacle attacks, descendants of marooned 16th century mariners bouncing around on giant, balloon-aided hovercraft shoes and, notably, no bloody lost continent. Incredible.

11. The Abominable Snowman (1957)

Another film that was been somewhat overlooked due to a perceived failure to directly deliver on the title, characteristically solid Val Guest joint ‘The Abominable Snowman’ has long been dismissed by monster fans as talky, stagy, uneventful. Once one can accept the fact that few bigfoot-related hi-jinks are forthcoming however, I think it can be appreciated as a very fine piece of work indeed – not a horror movie as such, nor a daring-do action-adventure flick, but as an atmospheric and intelligent study of men coming face to face with the unknown, finding their assumptions about the world mutating and collapsing, as physical peril and the quest for basic survival becomes ever more urgent. Whilst ‘..Snowman’s scientifically-inclined, remote location monster movie set-up was already pretty boilerplate stuff by the late ‘50s (there are clear nods here to both ‘The Creature From The Black Lagoon’ (’54) and Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing from Another World’ (‘51)), Nigel Kneale’s script nonetheless takes a deeper and more challenging approach to the material than his predecessors, resulting in something wholly unique.

As with much of his best SF writing, Kneale here concentrates on mixing up the scientific with the sublimely mysterious, challenging both rationalists and mystics to come to terms with a more nuanced reality that fits nobody’s blue-prints. A careful balance of location and set-bound shooting (Hammer actually flew a crew out to the Pyrenees for this one, believe it or not) and a commanding central performance from Cushing really sells us on the reality of the on-screen drama as it unfolds, with Guest wisely taking a Val Lewton-like fear-of-the-unseen approach to proceedings, emphasizing Kneale’s conception of the yeti as not just a physical presence but a wholly alien, telepathic intelligence, and giving the film an aura that is both chilling and actually kinda beautiful, even as the bolts tighten on a subdued but persistently effective bit of survival horror.

To be continued…

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Coming Soon…

So first of all, I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of an update on the immediate future of this blog to get out of the way.

Nothing catastrophic I hope, but, without wishing to burden you with the details, let’s just say that my life is very busy at the moment with pursuits that do not afford me much time to geek out over strange movies and old books in the manner to which I have hitherto been accustomed.

Therefore, I offer no guarantees that I will be able to maintain even my usual erratic posting schedule in the near future, and the content I do rustle together may end up being somewhat eccentric, but… I enjoy doing this blog a great deal, and I’m always very gratified that people read it, so I’ll do what I can to keep things rolling along. Thanks in advance for sticking around.

Secondly though, and as the banner above has probably already informed you, I'm happy to note that the last week of this month marks the centenary of the birth of a man whose work I hope requires no introduction to readers of the blog, your friend and mine, Mr Peter Cushing.

A good old fashioned blogathon is being co-ordinated by the Frankensteinia weblog, and somewhere, somehow, I intend to take part. Expect pointless list-making, warm, cozy, Hammer-y feelings and, well, we’ll see how things go, writing-wise. Take care everybody, and I’ll be back in a jiffy.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Weird Tales:
Frank Belknap Long

At an impressionable age, my brother and I both developed an unhealthy interest in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (an obsession that persists to this day, in my case at least). With assorted anthologies of the master's work duly acquired and consumed, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves scouring second hand bookshops for the even more obscure, night-haunted outpourings of the numerous other writers (influences, acquaintances and Weird Tales-affiliated contemporaries) who are generally thought of as constituting Lovecraft’s ‘circle’.

Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994) was high on the list, and the enticing 1975 Panther anthology you see above was soon in our hands. THE BLACK DRUID. Yeah, that’s the stuff. And what a cover!

A few pages into the title story however, and Frank Belknap Long was very much off the list. You’d have thought that exposure to HPL’s more fragrant meanderings might have already prepared us for what was in store, but all the same, Long’s particular brand of bizarre, artless prose and rambling, hackneyed storytelling provoked such a strong negative reaction that until recently I’d pretty much written the guy off completely, consigning this book to the shelf, leaving most of the other stories unread.

The opening paragraphs were questionable enough:

“Mr Stephen Benefield entered the library and hung his black Chesterfield overcoat on the rack which the trustees had grudgingly provided for the accommodation of inclement and cold weather accessories. There were seven other overcoats on the rack. Mr Benefield paused to count them – he was a methodical and observing man – and passed to the reference desk. When the librarian approached him he nodded amiably.
‘I wish to peruse, please, Lucian Brown’s The Cromlech Jeelos. It is No. 3268 A. I looked it up yesterday in the catalogue.’
Closing the book Mr Benefield smiled and passed it back over the desk. ‘That is the passage I was looking for,’ he explained. ‘I do not believe I shall need a copy of it. I thought it might be a very long passage, but it is so brief that I can remember enough to paraphrase it without the aid of a written copy. Thank you very much. I am Stephen Benefield, an archaeologist. I use such passages in my books.’”

But I recall that it was the author’s subsequent description of his protagonist that particularly aroused our derision:

“It is true that Mr Benefield was, in some respects, an odd looking man. His hair was absurdly long and it descended upon his forehead in a circular, antiquated bang; his hat was two sizes too small for his immoderately large head – a brachycephalic head, although he boasted twenty generations of Saxon forebears – and his socks, which his wife had purchased for him, were of heavy wool, and unsupported by garters they bulged above his shoes like the elephantine folds on the torso of an Abyssinian eunuch.”

Needless to say, reading these passages again as an adult, I can’t help but feel that we were missing the point somewhat. Although Long’s prose is certainly somewhat peculiar, I think I’m now more able to appreciate the quasi-tongue in cheek, knowingly antiquated pulp style that he was going for. Rather than laughing AT him, perhaps we should have been laughing WITH him, so to speak. Lacking the more ‘refined’ literary affectations of his fellow Weird Tales writers, Long instead writes with a kind of woolly, bellowing gusto - somewhat like the prose equivalent of Brian Blessed’s speaking voice - and most of his stories give the impression of having been hammered out at break-neck speed to reach the next issue’s deadline… which was more than likely the case I suppose, given his position as an aspirant full-time writer struggling to support a family through the worst years of the great depression.

Perhaps as a result of these pressures, the bulk of the innumerable weird tales Long cranked out through the ‘20s and 30s are indeed somewhat less than inspired. But when he did hit on something good, he hit it HARD, as is demonstrated by the handful of his more celebrated efforts compiled in the Arkham House anthology ‘Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos’, which I finally got around to reading last month.

‘The Hounds of Tindalos’ (1929) is probably his best-known tale, and indeed, it is an absolute corker. Mixing up half-understood quantum physics, medieval occultism, ‘House On The Borderland’-esque cosmic awe, proto-psychedelic indigestion of “strange drugs” and good old fashioned nameless evil into a compressed ten page dose of boggle-eyed, metaphysical madness, it is perhaps the most archetypically perfect ‘weird tale’ ever written… with the emphasis kept very much on the WEIRD.

Read it as I did, bleary-eyed after a few drinks in the final half hour before sleep, and it’s pretty wild stuff, whether in 1929, 2013, or in the dark, curved spaces before the dawn of recorded time:

“Chalmers lay stretched out upon his back in the centre of the room. He was starkly nude, and his chest and arms were covered with a peculiar bluish pus or ichor. His head lay grotesquely upon his chest. It had been completely severed from his body, and the features were twisted and torn and horribly mangled. Nowhere was there a trace of blood.

The room presented a most astonishing appearance. The intersections of the walls, ceiling and floor had been thickly smeared with plaster of paris, but at intervals fragments had cracked and fallen off, and someone had grouped these upon the floor around the murdered man so as to form a perfect triangle.

Beside the body were several sheets of charred yellow paper. These bore fantastic geometric designs and symbols and several hastily scrawled sentences. The sentences were almost illegible and so absurd in content that they furnished no possible clue to the perpetrator of the crime. ‘I am waiting and watching,’ Chalmers wrote. ‘I sit by the window and watch the walls and ceiling. I do not believe they can reach me, but I must be aware of the Doels. Perhaps they can help them break through. The satyrs will help, and they can advance through the scarlet circles. The Greeks knew a way of preventing that. It is a great pity that we have forgotten so much.’

On another sheet of paper, the badly charred remains of seven or eight fragments found by Detective-Sergeant Douglas (of the Partridgeville Reserve), was scrawled the following: ‘Good god, the plaster is falling! A terrific shock has loosened the plaster and it is falling. An earthquake perhaps! I could never have anticipated this. It is glowing dark in the room. I must phone Frank. But can he get here in time? I will try. I will recite the Einstein formula. I will - God, they are breaking through! They are breaking through! Smoke is pouring from the corners of the wall. Their tongues – aghhh –’”

Perhaps not quite as far-out, but equally entertaining, ‘The Space Eaters’ (1928) not only opens with one of the greatest non-sequitur, one sentence paragraphs of all-time (I defy you to beat “The horror came to Partridgeville in a blind fog.”), but also adopts an in-joke filled, fourth wall-breaking format that lends it a particular resonance for fans of H.P. Lovecraft and the world he inhabited.

More than just another correspondent or contemporary, Frank Belknap Long was one of the few people who could actually claim to have been a close personal friend of Lovecraft, getting to know him not merely through the voluminous exchanges of correspondence with which Lovecraft managed most of his personal relationships, but in person too. Lovecraft regularly stayed with Long’s family in Brooklyn whilst visiting New York, and the pair spent a great deal of time together during HPL’s ill-fated sojourn in the city in the mid-‘20s.
Howard & Frank, Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1931

With this in mind, little is left to the imagination when ‘The Space Eaters’ introduces us to ‘Frank’, a practical, rambunctious sort of fellow who is currently ensconced in a remote farmhouse with his good friend ‘Howard’, an intense, haunted author of sanity-shaking macabre tales;

“My friend wrote short stories. He wrote to please himself, in defiance of contemporary taste, and his tales were unusual. They would have delighted Poe; they would have delighted Hawthorne, or Ambrose Bierce, or Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. They were studies of abnormal men, abnormal beasts, abnormal plants. He wrote of remote relams of imagination and horror, and the colors, sounds and odors which he dared to evoke were never seen, heard or smelt on the familiar side of the moon. He projected his creations against mind-chilling backgrounds. They stalked through still and lonely forests, over ragged mountains, and slithered down the stairs of ancient houses, and between the piles of rotting black wharves.”

Indulgent as such self-referential blather may seem to us now, I’m sure that at the time of writing neither man had any idea that their stories – confined to the pages of marginal, cheaply printed pulps – would still be being pored over by readers nearly a century later. And despite the injokey tone, I find it interesting that, whilst clearly not short on praise for his friend’s writing, Long’s actual characterisation of Lovecraft in the story is somewhat less than wholly complimentary.

“As I continued to stare at him he suddenly stopped writing and shook his head. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said. ‘I should have to invent a new language. And yet I can comprehend the thing emotionally, intuitively, if you will. If I could only convey it in a sentence somehow – the strange crawling of its fleshless spirit!’
‘Is it some new horror?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘It is not new to me. I have known and felt it for years – a horror utterly beyond anything your prosaic brain can conceive.’
‘Thank you,’ I said.”

Whilst I’m sure it was all in good fun, ‘Howard’ is nonetheless revealed to be a rather callous and unstable individual, his behaviour quickly becoming slightly unhinged as the brain-eating horrors lurking within that ‘blind fog’ descend:

“Slowly we became aware that the wails came from far away. As far away, perhaps, as Mulligan Wood.
‘A soul in torture,’ muttered Howard. ‘A poor, damned soul in the grip of the horror I’ve been telling you about – the horror I’ve known and felt for years.’
He rose unsteadily to his feet. His eyes were shining and he was breathing heavily.
I seized his shoulders and shook him. ‘You shouldn’t project yourself into your stories that way,’ I exclaimed. ‘Some poor chap is in distress. I don’t know what’s happened. Perhaps a ship foundered. I’m going to put on a slicker and find out what it’s all about. I have an idea we may be needed.’
‘We may be needed,’ repeated Howard slowly. ‘We may be needed indeed. It will not be satisfied with a single victim. Think of that great journey through space, the thirst and dreadful hungers it must have known! It is preposterous to imagine it will be content with one victim!’
Then, suddenly, a change came over him. The light went out of his eyes and his voice lost its quiver. He shivered.
‘Forgive me,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid you’ll think I’m as mad as the yokel who was here a few minutes ago. But I can’t help identifying myself with my characters when I write. I’d described something very evil, and those yells – well they are exactly like the yells a man would make if – if..’”

Despite such ruminations on the perils of confusing fantasy with reality however, Long’s usual jaunty, good-natured tone continues to predominate, and overall ‘The Space Eaters’ emerges as another rampantly weird pulp outing, playing out like some sweaty, chronically twisted Boy’s Own adventure, as our dynamic duo of macabre scribblers don their ‘slickers’ to take on brain-sucking vampires in the dark woods and come under siege from telepathic alien evils and trepanned zombie rednecks in their cabin (shades of ‘The Evil Dead’ perhaps?), eventually making their escape via motorboat, throwing magically-charged cross gestures at the demonic apparition rising above the ill-starred forest… a poorly judged intrusion of Christianity into the bleak Lovecraftian cosmos that seems likely to have enraged HPL far more than any perceived slight on his character.

As with ‘The Hounds of Tindalos’, ‘The Space Eaters’ ends with an epilogue that sees the good-natured Frank arriving too late to prevent the powers of alien-occult damnation returning to claim his more obsessive friend, thus furnishing both stories with conclusions which could possibly be read as not-too-deeply-coded warnings re: a certain someone’s propensity to take all this abyss-gazing just a bit too seriously.

Unlike his ill-fated friend, Frank Belknap Long never seems to have much troubled the thoughts of critics, academics or high-falutin’ pop culture weirdos, but one gets the impression he probably didn’t object to relative anonymity that much, spending the remainder of life thoroughly immersed in the world of commercial pulp fiction, and earning his living as a working writer right up to the early ‘80s. Through the ‘30s and ‘40s he continued to contribute to Weird Tales and other pulps, also finding time to ghost-write several Ellery Queen mysteries alongside scripts for numerous comic books, including DC’s Superman and Green Lantern. From the late ‘50s onward he followed several of his fellow Weird Tales scribes into the lucrative(?) realm of paperback sci-fi, penning such bluntly titled epics as ‘Woman From Another Planet’ (1959) and ‘It Was The Day of the Robot’ (1963), before paying the bills into the mid ‘70s with a series of gothic mysteries, written under the name of his wife Lyda.

By this point, retirement must surely have beckoned, but Long’s connection to the by-now-legendary Lovecraft still kept his name on (a few) people’s lips, and his bibliography is rounded out with a steady stream of reminiscences, book introductions, convention appearances and fan-published chapbooks of Lovecraftian verse, all harking back to those few years he spent knocking about with that long-faced geezer from Providence.