The Soul Cages

We’ve recently been rewatching Babylon 5, and came across the feature-length episode with the Soul Hunters. Soul Hunters, in J. Michael Straczynski’s universe, well-meaningly capture the souls of the dying for posterity – and in so doing, drive those souls mad. Something about that story was familiar, but tracing its path would take us from the vastness of the universe to the bottom of the sea. And in every form the story takes, one question nags: what do we owe the people around us?

“There is an old British folktale about the souls of the dead being kept under the sea in the lobster cages of a creature who is half man, half fish. Anyone who dares try to free the souls of the dead must go under the sea himself and drink with the creature. If he drinks him under the table, the souls will go free. If, on the other hand, the creature prevails, the challenger will be imprisoned forever in the cages at the bottom of the sea. You need a strong stomach to treat with this creature.” – Sting, Lyrics by Sting (2007)

On this day in 1991, Sting released The Soul Cages – a meditation on bereavement, family and birthplace, with salt in its veins and religion and folklore in its imagery. The album was a personal exorcism that followed three years of writer’s block, and a response to the death of his father. It’s scaffolded on the waning of the Newcastle shipbuilding industry, and the image of a ship recurs, representing both the hope of going out into the world to adventure, and a sealed coffin. The fourth single, the title song, directly references a folk tale that Sting was familiar with.

The boy child is locked in the fisherman’s yard
There’s a bloodless moon where the oceans die
A shoal of night stars hang fire in the nets
And the chaos of cages where the crayfish lie

I’ve loved this album since I was eighteen. It gave me an imaginative route to dealing with my feelings about own late father and my waning faith. Also, the gloom of a declining shipyard is familiar to anyone who grew up around Belfast Lough, with the great cranes of Harland and Wolff as part of our mental landscape. In his 2013 musical The Last Ship, Sting would return to that theme with a focus on the impact on a community of its shipyard closing, but The Soul Cages is mostly about the intuitive, inner response to loss, and that last single dramatises it as a conflict with evil beneath the sea.

He’s the king of the ninth world
The twisted son of the fog bells’ toll
In each and every lobster cage, a tortured human soul

In the song, a boy seeks to reclaim his father’s soul from the sea bed, where men’s souls are the captives of “the Fisherman,” a fiend who functions more like the Devil than an old sea dog. The boy offers the Fisherman a wager, bringing him a cask of magical wine, which he says is wrung from the blood of those sailors. He challenges the Fisherman – in effect challenging the sea itself – to match him drink for drink: “If the drink leaves me standing, a soul shall go free.” But if the Fisherman is the last one standing, the boy will be caged with him forever.

A body lies open in the fisherman’s yard like
The side of a ship where the iceberg rips
One less soul in the soul cages
One last curse on the fisherman’s lips

The boy prevails and the monster is defeated, yet the prize seems so slight: one less soul in the soul cages? Why not bargain for all the dead? Why not open the rest of the cages and let the souls go? Of course, the reasons are making the lyrics fit and the rhyme scheme, and thematically the story is really about just one soul, one dead father. The last verse repeats the bridge and coda of album opener “Island of Souls”, which is the inverse of “The Soul Cages.” In its modern industrial landscape, the boy’s father is simply injured working at the shipyard. The imagery is prosaic compared to that of “The Soul Cages”:

They brought Billy’s father back home in an ambulance
Brass watch, a cheque, maybe three weeks to live

Billy dreads his life inevitably taking the same tack: miserable job, wages drunk away rather than saved, health destroyed. But in the chorus, he dreams of the ship going out into the world, of himself and his father leaving the town behind forever, to sail to the Island of Souls. Sting would also knit that idea into The Last Ship decades later. But while “The Soul Cages” is more heavily folkloric than Sting’s later project, the bridge hints at modern life in a north that, at the time he was writing it, had long been hammered by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government:

These are the souls of the broken factories
Subject slaves of the broken crown
The dead accounting of old guilty promises
These are the souls of the broken town

So, “The Soul Cages” and “Island of Souls” are the same story told from realistic and fantastical perspectives. Only in his dreams can Billy win his father’s soul back and save himself from a grim life. In reality, Sting left the city, and he finally transcended his own grief by writing about it, even though the north would eventually pull him back to write about its people and its industry in more direct terms.

I had wondered for years about the folk tale “The Soul Cages” was based on, and finally researched it when Remco and I were writing our own story about the sea and the dead. The northern Dutch history that inspires us is also riven with maritime tragedies, and we’d woven together the fishing disaster of Moddergat with the local belief in divination. Inevitably, I listened to The Soul Cages a lot while working on it, and decided it was finally time to trace the song’s folkloric roots. What emerged was a strange history, with unexpected layers.

“The Soul Cages” was first published in volume 2 of T. Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825 – 28). In Croker’s collection, “The Soul Cages” is the story of Jack Dogherty, a fisherman and beachcomber living on the coast of Co. Clare on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Jack had always wished to see a Merrow – a creature that (as in Sting’s memory of the story) is somewhat like a man, and somewhat like a fish:

“One tremendous blustering day, before he got to the point whence he had a view of the Merrow’s rock, the storm came on so furiously that Jack was obliged to take shelter in one of the caves which are so numerous along the coast; and there, to his astonishment, he saw sitting before him a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig’s eyes. It had a fish’s tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged thinking very seriously about something.”

The Merrow, whose name is Coomara, turns out to be a very friendly sort of fellow, and because this is Ireland and someone always knows one of your relations, Jack learns that the Merrow and his grandfather were old friends. Coomara invites Jack to his home under the sea for a slap-up meal, lending him a hat which lets him breathe underwater. Jack is perturbed about entering the briny depths, but finds Coomara’s home perfectly civilised, if a little rustic. Overall, the feeling of the story up to this point is that a Merrow is just another kind of person – odd-looking, but somehow still ‘one of us’.

After a long, elaborate dinner and an impressive amount of alcohol (they’re both in the habit of rescuing bottles from shipwrecks, and the cool under the sea prevents it going to their heads), the Merrow shows Jack around, inviting him to admire his various treasures, and that’s when a cultural gap emerges. Coomara has a collection of lobster pots which he proudly introduces as the Soul Cages:

“Arrah! what souls, sir?” said Jack, in amazement; “sure the fish have no souls in them?”
“Oh! no,” replied Coo, quite coolly, “that they have not; but these are the souls of drowned sailors.”
“The Lord preserve us from all harm!” muttered Jack, “how in the world did you get them?”
“Easily enough: I’ve only, when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold; so they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?”

Jack is “thunderstruck” (though not enough to spurn his host’s excellent brandy), and after Coomara sends him home, he devises a plan to release the sailors’ souls. Sending his unknowing wife off on a trip to a holy well for the sake of their own souls, he invites Coomara to dinner and attempts to get him drunk. Adding tension to the story, his first try leaves the Merrow perfectly clear-headed, but luckily Jack’s wife’s journey is a multi-day affair, and Coomara doesn’t question two dinner invitations so close together.

Jack’s secret weapon is poitín – an illicit and very strong drink distilled from potatoes. Apparently his grandfather never introduced the Merrow to that one! While Coomara is insensible, Jack borrows his hat and makes his way back to the Merrow’s home on the seabed. To Jack, the souls are invisible, so as he lifts one lobster pot after another to release them, he has to content himself with “a sort of little whistle or chirp” as each soul leaves its cage. There’s a brief worry over whether he’ll be able to return to the surface without Coomara’s tail to hold onto, which is how he managed it before, but a big fish comes by and all is solved.

Here the story veers into broad comedy. Jack’s wife returns to find the Merrow passed out on her kitchen floor, and assumes her husband has “made a beast of himself with drink” until she runs into Jack outside. Her anger abates when she hears of his saving of the souls, and, rather anticlimactically, we are told that Coomara “never missed” them. Jack’s acquaintance with the Merrow continues for several years, and as Coomara continues collecting souls, every so often Jack repeats the whole procedure, until Coomara is seen no more, and Jack assumes he has died or left that part of the country. So that’s it: this creature, who has behaved monstrously without ever thinking of it that way, is a good pal until he dies or moves house.

Croker collected the stories he anthologised from a number of contacts in Ireland. He also larded them with a literary style, humour and stereotypes, which may be unfortunate given that the collection was to increase the profile of Irish folklore in the wider world. Most significantly, Croker had lost his original manuscript, and the published version is what he could reconstruct with the help of other writers, including Thomas Keightley, a pioneer in the study of folklore. However, when the second volume was published, containing “The Soul Cages”, it bore only Croker’s name. This brought criticism, as on folklore blog Writing in Margins, which calls it a ‘Fake Folktale‘.

Keightley republished “Soul Cages” in The Fairy Mythology (1828), and in a later edition would admit that it was not a piece of folklore collected in the field, but a story of his own devising, based on the German tale “Der Wassermann und der Bauer” (“The Waterman and the Peasant“), no. 52 in the Deutsche Sagen published by the Brothers Grimm. The story’s provenance has been viewed as Keightley hoaxing the other folklorists, but in an 1829 letter to Wilhelm Grimm, Keightley claimed that it had been Croker’s idea to cobble the story together, and that Croker made changes after it left Keightley’s hands.

Keightly’s confession is further complicated by his claim to have afterwards found sources in Ireland, in Cork and Wicklow, who knew the story as Keightley himself had written it, except that the souls were in upturned flowerpots, rather than lobster pots. It’s also possible that in the intervening years, book distribution and people’s memories of the story being read to them in childhood, by way of Grimm even, could have reintroduced it to the oral tradition.

And what of its cultural afterlife? The literary critic Richard Pine has argued that it’s the basis for Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Fisherman and his Soul,” which involves a fisherman, a mermaid, and a detached and wandering soul, though to my mind the resemblance is slight when looking at the story as a whole. Going back to Newcastle, by 1851, the North East of England had the fourth largest Irish population in England and Wales combined, so if the story was being told by Irish people, it might eventually have found its way to Sting through their descendants. Given the Deutsche Sagen route of dissemination, a version of “The Soul Cages” must appear in any number of books.

Whatever the truth of its origins, reading it now, we might ask: what’s the moral of this story? Should we keep inviting our own Watermen and Merrows to our tables, and simply accept that it’s our responsibility, every now and then, to go and release the souls that they just keep on capturing? Or should we tell the Watermen to stop their activities once and for all, and leave other souls at peace?

(aba)

World Building

A confession: we’re not much into world building in what, in our own shorthand, we call our Wheelworld stories, the stories around the sell-sword Kaila, scribe Ymke and teenage rogue Sebastien.

From a thread on Twitter about King Arthur, which is worth reading: ...the popularity of arthur stories is largely a manufacture of british protestants to invent a pre-catholic, post-roman, christian romantic past that could be deployed in the service of social conservatism as articulated through storytelling, architecture, and interior design.

We find this thought very freeing as authors who have lost too much time to find out “which foods are old world and which new world produce” and are reluctant to make their late medieval-ish fantasy conform precisely to the limits of what tech existed in what analog country in our world. It’s detail-focused, rather than processing from generalities upward. It’s never been our ambition for Wheelworld (the clue is in the fact we’ve begun ironically referring to it like that) to be one of those ultra-precise fantasy worlds where we know every linguistic, historical, topographical, flora/fauna detail.

One of the maps of Ricardo Pinto’s Three Lands, from Stone Dance of the Chameleon

We love created worlds like that. There’s an incredible complexity and subtlety that becomes possible when you truly know every inch of your fantasy world. Our friend Ricardo Pinto, with his Stone Dance of the Chameleon series, surpasses Tolkien in the depth and originality of his conlangs, genealogies and history. His website offers a taste of the background material he created for his magnum opus (and we really recommend the revised, seven-part edition). Our imagination however works the other way round, and we lean into that: broadly, we look at what the story needs, and make the world to fit those needs.

In this approach, we follow in the footsteps of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, whose Hyborian world is overlaid on the map of Europe as we know it, and whose place and personal names purposely echo cultures we know. His Aquilonian kingdom reminds us of the medieval French Aquitaine; when he mentions the people of Shem, we know roughly where they come from. It’s a shorthand for him, using the general knowledge of the readers, so that he can get on with the story he wants to tell. Likewise, for The Red Man we’ve used a version of the northern Netherlands, Road to Starohrad is set in Prague (sort of) and for The Return of the Uncomplaining Child we looked (literally) at Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen. We allow our readers’ associations to construct our world in their minds.

Map of the Hyborian Age by Robert E Howard

If we had made a map of Wheelworld, it would be a bit like that of Europe, though stretched out in certain parts, shrunk to insignificance in others. Our “northern Netherlands” definitely seem to be larger. Our approach has been to unfurl the world under our characters’ feet as we’ve needed new parts of it. None of them had the kind of education, or the kind of things expected of them in life, to give them a king’s or a scholar’s understanding of their world. So that world has… unrendered bits. Their world is like a medieval map, with vague “somewhere over there”s and “here be monsters”.

And things work a bit differently in that world generally. How different depends on what we’d like to do, or sometimes where our trio leads us. We haven’t talked about this before because it always seems like such a cop-out when meticulous world-building is a thing many people adore in fantasy.

Detail of the Hereford Mappa Mundi

Our curiosity lies more in the daily human relations of the world than its full historical record. Oh, bits of its history have emerged and continue to emerge. It’s getting more solid, and parts of it will get very solid as we take you through the rest of our heroes’ adventures. But its life and vigour rely on there being hinterlands; unmapped, unregarded bits. And one theme that keeps coming up is the precarity of civilisation: not even the lofty bits, but the everyday standards, like not murdering your neighbour. In that sense too it’s Howardian.

Granted, at least he did have a map!

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

The prologue of Conan the Barbarian immediately makes clear what sort of hero we must make do with. According to the voice-over it’s ‘between the years that the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas’. On a battlefield we find a woman clutching her belly with one hand and a sword with the other. She’s in labour, but only by being cut from her womb will the baby deign to emerge, as her dying lips whisper his name-to-be.

A teenage Conan pays no heed when his father, the tribe’s blacksmith (Ron Perlman), tries to teach him the riddle of steel whilst forging him his first sword. In Celtic tradition a smith was half village elder, half shaman, but what should be a key scene of the film is understated, the mythological quality lost. This is typical of a film that turns out to be about an obnoxious murderer instead of a hero.

Conan’s father (Ron Perlman) teaches his son the Riddle of Steel.

The torturously unpleasant violence from the movie’s opening continues when the village is invaded. Every bone-crunch of teenage Conan’s counter-attack is amplified, while the powerful character moments between son and soon-to-die father are lost, the filmmakers assuming we’re only interested in seeing Perlman get molten metal full in the face.

This tone persists. The adult Conan does unspeakably nasty things to captive baddies, and frees female sex slaves only to leer at them himself, then get them re-employed as tavern sluts. It’s a far cry from John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian, of which the current film is ostentatiously not a remake, despite the many recurring tropes.

Both films are about a man who seeks out and ultimately destroys the wizard-king who wiped out his tribe. But where the old Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had innocence to balance his inherently thuggish life, the sum of his years spent at the Wheel of Pain and in the arena, new Conan is no better than the villains he dispatches in endless sword fights.

Jason Momoa as Conan

Lead actor Jason Momoa definitely shows a certain charisma and would be perfect in the role, particularly after playing the similar, but more nuanced, Drogo in Game of Thrones, were he not let down by the unimaginative direction and the shoddy script. It’s all stuff an adolescent’s dreams are made of: flashy gore and nastiness, grotesque villains and buxom damsels, but the film is light on the truly mythic, interesting character dilemmas and narrative logic.

The action sequences are cut too fast, disorientating rather than immersive, and quickly become repetitive and dull. The script, meanwhile, seems to have been cut to less than the bare minimum to get from one fight to the next. Character motivation is as scarce.

Conan (Jason Momoa) and Tamara (Rachel Nichols)

Indeed, about the women: Tamara (Rachel Nichols), goes from being an implausibly good fighter to a helpless puppet when the script requires it. When Conan claims her as his slave and gags her, it’s played as funny, not as a violation.

‘I live, I love, I slay… I am content,’ Conan mumbles halfway through the movie. As a motto it really holds no candle to his former incarnation’s answer to what’s best in life: ‘to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women’.

The producers have already blamed the failing box office figures on insufficient brand recognition, even though Robert E Howard’s pulp hero is doing well in every other medium, from comic book to video game. More likely, audiences aren’t fooled by ‘product’ slapped together for the lowest common denominator.

(This review appeared on the Culture Northern Ireland website)

On a Secession

In 1834, in the then isolated and remote village of Ulrum, Reverend De Cock was unhappy with the increasingly Enlightenment-influenced ideas that permeated the Dutch Reformed state religion, and with the church board he seceded. Eventually, his secession lead to a split in the Dutch Reformed Church, and reverberated through to the USA. Before that, De Cock was relieved of his function by the government, forbidden to preach, and another pastor, Reverend Smith, was called in. Writer, traveller and local gadfly Marten Douwes Teenstra wrote an anonymous pamphlet (with some italics mine)…

The Dutch Reformed church in Ulrum

(…)Sunday (12 October) morning ships full of hungry souls arrived in Zoutkamp (the next village, a harbour) to come to Ulrum with their dirty linen; more than a hundered carriages and a legion of pedestrians gathered in the streets of Ulrum, of which many went to the Widow Koster (in whose pub the secessionists met), who poured them gin, then left without paying – well, that was for De Cock and the landlady to solve; to pay is worldly and to pray and sigh is heavenly. It was mostly unknown faces who looked at each other in bewilderment. “O, if only these could be the last days of such violence,” others sighed.

At 10 o’clock, Reverend Smith went to the church, which was already full of people, both natural children of Adam as those who (as they felt) were reborn and had seen the light and belonged to the chosen flock. (Here Teenstra’s want of an editor becomes apparent, as the text becomes mired in smug allusions which, 185 years later, become unreadable. Suffice to say: De Cock was busy conspiring with his church council, and sent a friendly preacher, Scholte, to the church to try and preach. As designated preacher, Smith refused to forego his sermon.)

The pub of the widow Koster, meeting place of the Secessionists, early 20th c. photo

Reverend Smith, climbing off the pulpit, was asked again by Scholte to be allowed to preach in the church that afternoon. On being refused again, as Reverend Smith had received a message from the Provincial Church Council in Groningen to not only refuse it but to prevent it with suitable means, De Cock and his Xantippe started lambasting his sermon. Now the plebs started thronging more and more. Reverend Smith, almost 66 years old, was squeezed and punched, especially in the underbelly, so that his supporting girlde broke. The elderly preacher, almost breathless, would have collapsed in the pushing and pinching mass (amongst which Mrs De Cock shouted out: “Now is the time!”) if not for the few men, who also associate our own work and labours with religion, who supported him in getting out. Now the Game Cock put up his feathers (quo quis indoctior eo impudentior – the more stupid, the more brazen) and shouted to the people: “Stay in the church! Stay, people! Anon Reverend Scholte will speak.” Then some verses from Psalm 25 were sung. Later, however, De Cock and his cronies were driven out of the church by police officials, in name of the church elders and the local governors, after which the church was closed.

Reverend Hendrik de Cock, and his Act of Secession

Now we come to the main events of Sunday 19th October.

G.J. Van Polen, police officer from Appingedam, had already arrived early, as well as the constables of the neighbouring villages of Leens, Kloosterburen, Baflo, Warffum, Usquert and Kantens in Ulrum, and, with Ulrum’s constable, guarded the doors of the church. Two of them placed themselves at the pulpit, and two others accompanied J. van der Helm, reverend of Niekerk and Vliedorp, whose turn it was to preach. Coming in the church towards 9:30, it was already filled with participants and onlookers. The constables helped the preacher to get through the crowd and reached the step to the choir, close to the choir fence; here they got so much push-back that they had to retreat a little; while one Klaas Pieters Ritsema (commonly named after his wife, Klaas Wietskes), day labourer in Ulrum, being warned against pushing back by the constable of Leens, called in a loud voice: “Reverend Van der Helm will not get on the pulpit, but De Cock will.” – The constable of Leens called for help from the constables at the pulpit, but they called back that they couldn’t push through: Reverend Van der Helm, while hearing many sniggering comments, had to leave the church.

Interior of the church in Ulrum, 1925

Now De Cock, in full regalia, climbed on a bench within the choir fence, after having tried himself to get to the pulpit, now being stopped by Van Polen, whom he asked: who gave you the right to refuse me; to which Van P. answered: my superior, that is, the Officer of Justice. Upon this, De Cock, who did not want to answer to any worldly powers, read openly the ACT OF SECESSION.

(…) After reading this so-called Act of Secession – of which we could hear little, and so don’t know where De Cock ended, so we have included the whole thing (though I’m not) – Van Polen once more asked with the utmost sweetness, if it were praying and begging, to no longer rebel against the government – quoting once more the Officer of Justice, to which De Cock replied: “that the Officer didn’t have a say, and that he came in name of God, the King of Kings,” after which he called to the crowd: “Shall Van der Helm climb the pulpit? – No! No! Away with that Baal-priest! Away with the papist! Away with the idolator! Away with Satan’s sermon!” and adding: “The church is ours, we have seceded!”

Van Polen letDe Cock know in soft and modest terms that he was rousing the crowd and was heating tempers, to which De Cock replied: “I do nothing except for God, and should you use violence against me, than you will find your death; because I do not fear any worldly power of government.” A new attempt (by De Cock) to reach the pulpit failed, and the crowd started singing from the 118th Psalm, after which De Cock did a very noisy prayer. (…) We felt sorry for the man: his long, straight hair hung over his hollow eyes and pale cheeks, as if he was drowning. (…) We hoped that Van Polen would let him continue, thinking as the father of a madhouse: “leave the mad to do their talking.” But of course! He was again urged to obedience by Van Polen. De Cock said: “God should be obeyed sooner than people. There are no earthly powers who can stand against this,” and he started reading the community something from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Another caution from Van Polen again was fruitless and the gospel exercise lasted until 11:30, closing with an announcement that the service in the church would continue towards 1. Then De Cock left, the crowd thinned, those who remained were driven from the church, the door was closed and the church was surveilled by the constables.

Hotel/village hall of Ulrum, early 20th century

(…) Wednesday evening, 22nd October, De Cock and church elder J. J. Beukema, the first decent in black and wearing a tricorne hat, the other, as a crippled Vulcan, with coloured stockings, knee breeches with the buckles undone, and a blue sleeping cap on his head, appeared in the village hall. Here they immediately (as if to shoot burning soot from a chimney with a two barrel gun) announced officially that they had seceded and now were independent; requesting protection, instead of opposition, from the Council, because they had to follow God’s holy laws instead of the worldly.

(…)”What shall it be tomorrow?” was the question going round on Saturday 25 October. All sorts of rumours spread here: Reverend de Cock, Reverend J. van den Helm, the constable of Ulrum, called Jan Koster, and also the other constables present, as well as the earlier mentioned Klaas Wietskes had been summoned to appear in Appingedam at the courthouse on Friday the 31st; (…) Others said, that in Zoutkamp more than 40 ship’s mates, all big followers of their preacher Du Cloux of Vierhuizen, would appear armed with crankshafts, to help their reverend, whose turn it was, to the pulpit. One of the main Cock-friendlies (sorry, it’s what it says) said (and I have heard this myself): that opposition made matters worse, and if the constables had started anything, then it wouldn’t have stopped with the eight people (who had been summoned to Appingedam), and what would they have done against it? (…) followed by a much-meaning nodding of the head. He meant that a small force was like a drop of water in a coal fire, only stoking the heat. The sailors from Zoutkamp would not help either; because on Sunday the 26th so many people would come from Friesland, from the other side of the canal, from here to Delfzijl, to help De Cock in the pulpit, that nothing would stop them.

So, what did happen? Saturday afternoon, about 2 o’clock, an infantry company of the 10th division, one hundred men strong, not counting the officers (and Captain Vrij), came marching along the towpath from Mensingeweer to Ulrum, having come with three barges from Groningen city. (…) The soldiers were quartered with the villagers, and the night from Saturday to Sunday remained peaceful. (…)

The Ulrum rectory, 1925 postcard

Mr De Cock had not been forgotten in this respect, having aside from twelve men quartered in, also a guard at his house. Further there were no or few exceptions; all villagers, whichever denomination, were tasked with housing soldiers, of which butchers, bakers and pub landlords had the most profit: however much bakers were the main cause of the circumstances (Beukema, main church elder, was a baker and owner of half a dozen properties in the village). The girls too, being pious yet greedy, rejoiced, that Ulrum was enriched with a garison.

(…) Sunday morning, the 26th October, heard aside from the rumbling of clocks also the beating of drums. More than a thousand strangers (many out of sheer curiosity) came to Ulrum. This was the end of the handwringers’ mutiny: Soldiers who had withstood the siege and bombardment of the citadel of Antwerp in 1831, stood in line and received orders to loosen their ammunition belts. (…) The church was occupied and the reverend A.P.A. Du Cloux climbed without any opposition into the pulpit.

(…) De Cock wanted to go outside in the morning, telling his guard that he wanted to preach. (…) The guard simply kept him in the house and De Cock was not allowed to preach or go out. (…) Then came a crowd of Cock-friendlies to the rectory, and twenty were admitted, and now started a service in the presence of an officer, who quickly put an end to it.

To the south of Ulrum some of the pious gathered to hear a certain Roelf Medema, farmer in Adorp, in a field, while others played church on the sides of a ditch – then this crowd was soon disbanded.

(…) The soldiers muttered about the lady who’d have them sleep on straw, though they’d managed to get themselves beds, pillows, etc.

Reenactment soldiers at the 175-year anniversary

De Cock was now inaccessible under house arrest; and the guard at the rectory said: “He (De Cock) is not allowed out and nobody can visit him; if he has to go somewhere, an armed man goes with him, as well as with the missus, and even the maid is followed closely. All his papers have been sealed and moved away, so that he doesn’t even have a napkin left.” It goes without saying, that this was said in an exaggerated tone; only those papers were taken by the constable which had to do with his correspondence.

Everything is peaceful and quiet for now. Many poor villagers, who are not looking towards the coming winter without worry, are concerned that in their poverty they will be eaten out of bread and home, and complain about their guests. And also, these are soldiers from Holland (the west; Ulrum is in the far north), and they are not used to such guests. The soldiers guarding the rectory were also jealous that Mrs De Cock outdid them in swearing and cursing.

(…) Ulrum, 28 October 1834.

The Wild Hunt Trailer

I’ve given myself a black eye, all in the interest of art! We’d already written that our story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star, will appear in the Air & Nothingness Press anthology The Wild Hunt. This evening we had some fun making a trailer for it. As main images I used the photo of my own grandfather, and an old photo of a farm, up in the north of the Netherlands. I imagine the story set on a farm not unlike this one.

Having raided Angeline’s make-up bag (Max Factor! We’re going up in the world!)…

…I went a bit further with the eye-shadow than would be usual for the Gothic vibe. A piece of blue paper, with a hole in it, then served as blue screen matte.

And then it was time for the soundtrack, made in Garageband, mixing my own voice, the sounds of the Midwinter Horn and footage of baying dogs and galloping horses. Then I combined everything in iMovie. And there we are: the trailer for With One Eye, Bright As A Star! I hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it.

The anthology can now be ordered via the Air And Nothingness Press website. It’s a limited edition, 158 pages perfect bound, with french flaps. A real ‘hebbeding’ as we call it in Dutch!

(RvS)

King Kong in the Tuschinski

King Kong (1933) is my Ur-text. It was my gateway drug to Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror, from the moment I saw it when I was 6. I even wrote my own novelisation a few years later, based on vague memories. Now I’ve got access to an online archive of Dutch newspapers, it’s time to find out how the film was received in the Netherlands. The first mention of King Kong is in an advertisement on the front page of De Telegraaf, which was (and is) a popular (and populist) newspaper, on 26 April 1933. “Read this message.” it says, “KING KONG the great technical film miracle comes to TUSCHINSKI. THE MYSTERY KING KONG will surpass your expectations. (The script is by the well-known writer EDGAR WALLACE)”

The Tuschinski theatre had the continental premiere of King Kong, on Friday 28 April, at 2pm. Apparently, the board of the theatre had seen the film in London, saw the queues and decided to fetch this “great record breaker of London” to Amsterdam. On the stage, as supporting feature, “our Dutch star Fientje de la Mar (with a brilliant repertoire).” She was a bona fide diva, whose name lives on in the De la Mar theatre.

To announce the premiere, Tuschinski placed a large advertisement in the Telegraaf on 27 April. It’s a nice advert too; we see the giant ape and the blocky lettering, known from the film poster, however the great ape is not standing on the familiar half-globe of the Empire State, but on a flat-roofed building, below which we see a crowd of people fleeing. The work of a local artist, or a UK press kit?

Tuschinski was set to make the film a success in Amsterdam, and over the following days and weeks, several further notices and smaller ads appeared in the papers. King Kong could not have had its ‘continental premiere’ in a better theatre: built in 1921, the gorgeous theatre was designed in a mix of Art Nouveau, Ard Deco and Amsterdam School, and considered one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world. In the early 20th century it was renovated in its original style, and the original murals were once more uncovered. If you happen to visit Amsterdam: do visit the theatre!

But, how was it received? The socialist newspaper De Tribune is to the point:

Well, what can we say about it? In America they found this horror film with prehistoric animals on an island somewhere near Sumatra so fine, that they thronged the cinemas. But we didn’t care much for it. On the whole it’s played well by Fay Way and Bruce Cabot. But there was not much play to be had in a film where the main accent was on the fantastic animal world. Technically, miracles have been done, and you do wonder how it’s been done. But well, the tricks are numerous. The supporting feature is as usual well provisioned.” (De Tribune, 2 May 1933)

The Telegraaf has more enthusiasm, and knows what the people really want. First, the writer of it all is introduced, Edgar Wallace, “the writer of hundreds of books, novellas, dramas and scripts died before the film King Kong was ready, and what would he have thought, if he could have seen how imagination and especially engineering made his ideas into reality.”

In King Kong the film technology triumphs in mysterious ways, and all other tricks, even the separating Red Sea, seem like childish manipulatons of amateur filmmakers. Cooper and Schoedsack, the directors of King Kong, the builders of King Kong, had access to a number of engineers who have scratched the word “impossible” from their dictionary.”

Then follows an extensive synopsis of the plot. “Splintering trees and branches, King Kong approaches his present, and he is so horribly real, and so horrible of size that nobody will be surprised that the movie star gives a deathly shriek.”

You remember the dragon from Siegfried – the ungainly moving cloth thing that already seemed a victory of film technology to us. Thou see then the prehistoric monsters who inhabit this landscape and destroy the expediton. From that moment you live in a constantly rising state of admiration of the magnificent results that technology achieves. I’m not talking about the story, or the sort of tension it brings, but accepting the sort of atmosphere brought by it, you cannot but admire the prehistoric strength which was, I don’t know how, created with such a horrific reality. The ape fights with other monsters and you can somewhat imagine what the world looked like when there was still so little of a world. In earlier years, there were clever reconstructions of this prehistoric world, but now they’ve been brought to life, because for the first time you can see them in the right scale to the smallest human.”

You don’t need to mention names of actors or actress, because in this movie only the great work of technicians dominate. A writer can write: a 50 foot ape. Though to portray him, to make him live and move in his environment, with enemies of his own size and own valour, that is the work of master craftsmen, and this is how the biggest “thriller” of this era was made by engineers.” (De Telegraaf, 29 April 1933)

So, where the socialists wonder: “It’s very clever, but is it fun?” the populists conclude: “It’s very clever; what fun!” And the people of Amsterdam agreed. A photo caption in Het Volk on the 6th of May announces: “KING KONG. A scene from this movie, of which the script was written by Edgar Wallace. In the Tuschinski theatre in Amsterdam, the movie was extended for a week.” and in June the news followed: KING KONG JUNIOR. Meriam C. Cooper, leader of RKO Radio’s film production, has supplied the material for a film which can be taken as a sequel to the also in this country so successful film King Kong. To make it appear as clear as possible, this piece will carry the title King Kong Junior.” (Nieuws van den Dag, 10 June 1933).

(RvS)

Nosferatu in Holland

This week as main attraction the most interesting film of this season.
NOSFERATU
THE SCOURGE OF MANKIND

Mysterious movie play in 6 acts. Freely adapted from the novel “Drasula” by Bram Stoker
NOSFERATU
Does this word not sound like the midnight cry of the deathbird? Beware of speaking this thought out loud; otherwise images of life will bleach to shadows. The child of Belia was the vampire Nosferatu who lived off — and fed with the blood of mankind. Ghostly shapes arise from the midnight fog and stalk their prey.

This is how the Haagsche Courant of the 16th February 1922 heralded the coming of Nosferatu to the Dutch shores; in this case to the Flora and Olympia cinemas in The Hague. It should be noted that the premiere came before the German premiere. Either the PR man or the typesetter was not familiar with Stoker’s book, though “Drasula” has a certain ring to it. You had to be 18 to be admitted, and you wre encouraged to book your seats timely. The Nieuwe Courant gave the following review:

It’s a somewhat horrific film, which is the main attraction in the Flora and Olympia. “Nosferatu, the Scourge of Mankind” immediately awakens feelings of repulsion by his appearance, which becomes abhorrence when one sees his obscure practices. Like a shadow he haunts, the vampire, in the sombre-romantic castle in Transylvania, and then later extends his territory to bring his horror elsewhere, which he and his faithful accomplices, plague and death, spread. But, as it should, we will also see the end of his reign when he, surprised by cock crow, disappears in a phosphor flame. (Nieuwe Courant, 19 Feb 1922)

Very slowly Nosferatu made his way through the Netherlands, landing in the Amsterdam Luxor Theater in April that year:

Nosferatu, the Schourge of Humanity, the plague, the ghostly mystery, the bloodsucking vampyr escorted by scary rats and with coffins filled with cursed earth as luggage; see there the attractive-sensational image of this film. It’s true, with his excessive demand of increasing tension and emotion, the audience is making a difficult job for the screenwriters. Scary absurdities, deathly leaps and death defying stunts, unnatural things “that are not meant to be” and “easy girls” are always a good draw, in film and on the stage; serious pieces of art however give low box offices. But this ghost and horror story is of a whole differnent extreme, which the visitors did not know how to fully appreciate. After all, they had the best of time with this frightful ghost and took it more as a lugubrous-sinister joke. And that’s the sad think with this film. The subject could, with a somewhat less Grand Guignol-like approach, have yielded a gripping script. The locations chosen by the director contrast well with the corruption-bringing plague: the quiet-satisfied old-German city with the pittoresk houses and streets and the costumes of almost a century ago that fit so well with them. You could also not wish for better actors for a first class work: the estate agent, the young man and his wife, and Nosferatu himself all give outstanding and touching performances. But we are assured that a less outrageous topic would have given us a better result. (Algemeen Handelsblad, 11 April 1922)

Tittering in Rotterdam too:

A moving picture which because of its excentricity will draw lots of interest played for the first time in Pompenburg and W.B. Theatre. It is a collection of horrors, which so played on weak nerves, that a part of the audience appeared to have the urge to laugh away the unpleasant feeling; a proof that the superstitious practices, for which the Medieval times are preferably qualified as “dark”, have not yet lost their influence on the modern masses. For adults this picture, showing a period from a plague-epidemic, very enjoyable; not in the least because of the technical finesse and neat scenery. (Maasbode, 11 Aug 1922)

How much film art changed in the 1920s of the last century shows this article from 1927, when the cinema club Filmliga Amsterdam held a revival screening of Nosferatu:

With Faits Divers from the French cineast Claude Autant-Lara the Filmliga brought an avant-garde film as without them we would not get to see. It’s a short film, from 1923, but it still comes across as completely modern and pure, though four years mean a lot in the development of film art. The other film of the afternoon proved this: Nosferatu, the first film of the director Murnau, who afterwards made Faust, Der Letzte Mann proves completely out of date in seven years time. The Filmliga could have chosen a more typical and nicer specimen of the German film art of that time: Caligari remains unsurpassed as a whole: but with Nosferatu one gets an interesting look back on the nature of the first attempts, for the film to win an independent place on its own terrain. Nosferatu is “eine Symphonie des Grauens” and shows the typical characteristics of what was the crown of the German film in that time: the still hesitant balancing of a direction which had resolutely stepped away from imitating the stage, but did not manage yet to fill the now available possibilities with life. Film drama was forsaken and an independent script was sought, but such a script was also in horror films from that first time often completely depending of and guided by the film effects that were then seen as characteristic: the unreal, being able to realise the supernatural, the suggestion of environment and atmosphere. Nosferatu is still sketching this jump into the fantastic, with randomly thought up and spooky scenario; the best moments of the film which still are strong are mostly those who have a quite loose connection with the whole; a single nicely lit fragment in the harbour, the passing of a sail boat, the suggestion of a wall with closed shutters. The tempo is not really fluent; a few time when the ghostly is sped up it looks comical; and what especially disappoints in Nosferatu is the lack of atmosphere: the capricious clair-obscur that, discovered by the German film, seemed full of possibilities for a whole, has not yet been used significantly and the lighting remains stark and straightforward. A look back which creates distance. (Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, 27 Dec 1927)

Well, that’s Murnau told!

Curse of the Cat People

Remco told me of Aunt Auk, his father’s aunt. She was a tough but kind old lady who doted on his father when he was a child, and doted on Remco and his brothers too. She’d never had children herself. That is, until she got Alzheimer’s. One day, when Rem’s parents visited her, she was going to fetch her children, a boy and a girl. She was very proud of them; they liked drawing and reading, just like Rem and his brothers. She lived in a flat, but went out of her front door and called for them up the communal staircase. Rem’s mum got her back inside: “I’m sure they’re busy drawing. Just leave them at it, and they’ll come down later.” 

We find a similarly confused old lady in Curse of the Cat People (1944), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise. We feel sorry for her, as we feel for the little girl around which the film is built. However, we also need to feel sadness for the daughter the old woman rejects, and the little girl’s mother, who feels she’s competing with the memory of her husband’s first wife. And then her husband, the little girl’s father – he too is caught up in a cage of his own making. 

Cat People (1942) gave us the tale of the tragic Irena (Simone Simon), whose hereditary curse was to turn into a panther when aroused sexually or in anger. In this sequel, we learn that after her sad, violent death, her widower Oliver found happiness with another woman, Alice. If the film drifts away from its predecessor tonally, it tells an equally atmospheric and moving story of the couple’s daughter, Amy. Brought up in Tarrytown on tales of the Headless Horseman, playing in Sleepy Hollow at recess, Amy is nevertheless “away with the fairies” in a way that causes conflict with her parents. This isn’t a film about autism, but its themes of loss, loneliness, and people who cannot see their children for who they really are will resonate for many of us who grew up misunderstood. 

Amy is different from the other children at school. When she chases a butterfly she’s enraptured with, a rough boy grabs it to present to her, killing it in the process. Dismayed, she slaps his face. At a meeting with Oliver and Alice, teacher Miss Callahan is sympathetic, calling her “a very sensitive and delicately adjusted child,” but to Oliver, “sensitive” is a step away from “defective.” She’s also a child of rigid logic, who gets As in arithmetic, and believes exactly what she is told, to the letter. When her birthday party guests don’t turn up, it emerges that she posted their invitations in the “magic postbox”; a tree stump her father told her about when she was three years old. Nobody had considered that Amy would regard that as the only place to post things forever after. Oliver has a serious talk with her about being dreamy and wishful, then contradicts it by telling her to wish on her birthday cake candles. 

Amy makes a serious wish: to be good and play with other children, as her father wants. But we can only control our own behaviour, and not that of the people around us, as many a lonely child has to learn. We see the other children torment a cat, crush a butterfly, tear up flowers and cruelly reject Amy, yet it is she who is viewed as the social failure, particularly by her father. Autistic people often spend our childhoods adrift from our peers, but develop friendships with younger or older people, via common interests or mutual eccentricity. We’re often honest to the point of our own detriment. Amy befriends an elderly, housebound neighbour, Mrs. Farren who has seen the other children refuse to let her play. But when she relays the story to her father, he only has to hear her say that a sweet voice called to her from an old dark house, and he assumes it’s a dangerous delusion, rather than waiting to hear the mundane truth of a neighbour’s kindness. 

Oliver projects his fear and guilt about Irena – the last woman in his life to believe odd things – onto his daughter: “It’s something else – something moody, something sickly. She could almost be Irena’s child.” Ironically he hits on a refraction of the truth, because the spirit of Irena actually does give his daughter the tender attention she should be getting from him. After making another wish, this time on a ring given to her by Mrs. Farren, Amy’s loneliness seems to call up Irena’s ghost: a fairy godmother of sorts, whom only Amy can see. From now on, it will be Irena who fills her play hours, who comforts her when she has bad dreams. 

The parents of unusual children sometimes prefer the appearance of normality to the truth, and Amy’s father is pleased when he sees her running around looking cheerful. She’s happy because she finally has a friend, one who her parents can’t see, and who has sworn her to secrecy. Her parents assume her previous introspective demeanour was the reason for her friendlessness. These are uncomfortable scenes to watch if you had the standard undiagnosed autistic childhood, but not only that – how many children of many kinds, rejected or bullied, are focused on as the problem, when they’re simply different from those around them? And how often does a child become the focus of their parents’ unresolved tensions? 

Mrs. Farren is also wrestling with an absence. She treats her daughter – her sole carer and companion – as though she were an impostor: “My daughter, Barbara, died when she was six. That was long ago. You’re only the woman who takes care of me.” Barbara is hurt and tells her she was out of her head “back then,” suggesting some family tragedy for which her childhood self became the symbol, and beyond which there was no place for her to grow up, accepted. “My child is upstairs,” her mother says, to the daughter who is the scapegoat for her pain. To Amy, though, Mrs. Farren is a lucid and gracious host, telling her tales of Sleepy Hollow, and warning her that if she stands on its bridge at the wrong hour, she’ll be swept up in the Headless Horseman’s cloak, to ride with him forever. 

Barbara has found a different fate, one of drinking and social isolation, due to the emotional and personal toll of being sole carer to someone who rejects her. People don’t understand her mother’s mental confusion – indeed, the neighbourhood children believe Mrs. Farren is a witch – but there’s also a shame, undeserved though it is, attached to being the child of parental rejection. So Barbara and Amy actually have a lot in common, but Barbara sees Amy as a threat, and tells her mother that she will kill the child if she returns. She claims that her mother is worse after Amy’s visits, and perhaps that’s true: the balm of a six-year-old, her age an unfortunate coincidence, might leave Mrs. Farren even more confused and grief-stricken after she leaves. 

From an autistic perspective, there’s also resonance in the way that Mrs. Farren treats Barbara as a sort of changeling. A common theory holds that changeling folklore was a way for our ancestors to interpret changes in behaviour as autistic children grew up: social withdrawal and loss of acquired language, for instance. Amy’s tragedy is a little different, but still familiar to many a child whose guileless honesty has been misunderstood and punished. In Barbara, that child still exists, and comes out when Mrs. Farren opens a Christmas present from Amy, a 25-cent ring: “You didn’t even open my present, and I’m your daughter.” Once again, she gets only rejection from her mother: “My daughter died long ago.” 

There is a thread through the film of Amy’s connection with animals, of a young girl’s growing understanding of the inevitability of death – while her parents still agonise about when and how they will eventually tell her about Irena. Mrs. Farren tells Amy a story of Herne the Huntsman, who walks abroad on Twelfth Night and leaves death in his wake, and when Amy sees a dead deer in the snow later, she is confounded: “But where has it gone? Where’s all the strength and the quickness?” Nobody has an answer for her, and she resolves to ask Irena, setting up the film’s final act. 

Back home, Miss Callahan, Amy’s teacher, has come to visit, and as the Christmas decorations are being dismantled, talk turns again to Twelfth Night traditions and memories, and the photo album comes out. From it flutters the photograph of Irena, who Amy recognises as her friend, leading to an interrogation from her father, who sees this as evidence of a runaway imagination. After Miss Callahan witnesses the row, she tries to persuade the couple that Amy does not consider herself a liar: “She needed a companion, so out of her own hunger she created one. In her mind her friend was in the garden. In her mind her friend never leaves her. Right this very minute I’m sure she’s upstairs sobbing out her grief to a friend who exists only in her mind.” She says that once the “emptiness” in Amy’s life is filled by her parents, in the real world, the stories of Irene will fade away. Basic child psychology, in other words. 

Persuaded to heal the breach between them, Oliver discovers that Amy is not in the house. She has gone into Sleepy Hollow in search of Irena – and there’s a blizzard. After a terrifying blunder through the woods, she somehow finds her way to the Farrons’ house, where Barbara and her mother are at loggerheads, and their fight reveals to us the truth: that when Barbara was six, Mrs. Farren had driven home on a similarly stormy night against all advice, that her car  overturned, and that after the accident, her memory was gone for a decade. Even when she re-emerged, she would not accept the then sixteen-year-old Barbara as her own child. 

And that night, as Amy finds her way through the storm to the Farren home, she arrives in the wake of a brief moment of lucidity and connection between the two.  Barbara’s resentment of Amy has boiled over, and her mother believes her earlier threat to Amy if she visited again. Mrs. Farren tries to hide the child from her daughter, but her heart gives out. Amy, having so recently understood the permanence of death, realises that Mrs. Farren has died. Barbara is grief-stricken and enraged: “Even my mother’s last moment you’ve stolen from me.”  

Irena appears to Amy in the place of this angry woman. Amy walks up to Barbara and embraces her, and Barbara’s hands, poised to crush her, melt into an embrace, the spell of her anger broken. We hear the dogs of the search party outside, and Amy’s and the police parents blow in with the snow. Her father realises what he almost lost. “Amy, from now on you and I are going to be friends. I’m going to trust you. I’m going to believe in you.” When he asks he she can still see Irena, Amy can, and says so. Her dad, playing along, says he sees her too. Or maybe he does see Irene, if only in his imagination – one last time, before she fades away. 

(aba)

Now Playing: Frankenstein

It’s tucked away on the advertising page, with ads for Esperanto, children’s wound ointment, steam washery Ozon and the family notices (Hermanus Gosses Offringa, Klaaske Faber and Tjitje Dijkstra have passed). Then, underneath a big advertisement for Droste’s Nurses Cacao (“Prices from before 1914.” we find the programming for the cinemas of Leeuwarden, Friesland, for the Friday after onwards, in the Leeuwarder Courant of 8th September 1932.

CINEMA has De Verloren Zoon (The Prodigal) with Lawrence Tibbet, the LEEUWARDER “again brings 2 features: Het Geheim van een Priester.” (Lubitsch’ Broken Lullaby, I think) and Paniek in Chicago (Robert Wiene’s German film Panik in Chicago), promising “A tense filmwork, set in the underworld of Chicago.” Both films start at 7:30, and you’ll have to be 18 to enter.

You’ll also have to be 18 or older for what the TIVOLI has to offer:
This week the great, mysterious sensation-filmwork:
THE MONSTER OF FRANKENSTEIN
Made after the novel, written in 1818 by Mrs MARY WOLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY, the wife of the great English poet PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY. A film that has broken many records.

I wonder. What would you make of this, in lieu of a photo, review or other description? There’s an awful lot of focus on Shelley the poet; his name is printed in bold, even. Coupled with “mysterious, sensation” we expect thunder and lightning, perhaps, but especially grand gestures, exotic countries, doomed love, thigh breeches and floofy hair and people who orate in ‘dost’ and ‘thou’. And written by a Mrs, his wife, so surely it’s wholesome. Alas and Alack. What the Frisian purveyor of a Tivoli ticket, pre-sales courtesy of the cigar shop D. Ebbens at the Wirdumerdijk, got instead:

The Leewarder Courant’s reviewer, on the 10th of September, indeed was not impressed:
The Monster of Frankenstein” was made after the novel of Mrs Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley and written in 1818. It’s more than 100 years ago that the writer enriched (?) the world with this product, and if it’s a paragon of the literary taste of that time, we cannot have else than pity with them who indulged in such nonsense.
The contents are a sheer fantasies about which one cannot but shrug. Who has ever heard of a learned young man who, with a miscreant of a helper, collects bodyparts from a graveyard, steals a prepped and abnormal brain from the university, and then put all these elements together, to bring it to life with the aid of a certain electrical current.
But what the use of filming all of this is a mystery to me. The film has once more returned to its early stages, to speculation and the urge for the most primitive sensation.
And to this, the current technical improvements have been expended, which does not help the case, because they’ve been used most skillfully. You could argue that the film brings something special in direction, mime and make-up, sure, and we have pointed out little things that can make a film so beautiful. However, with “Frankenstein” this is null and void because here the rough-sensationalism and the appearance of the monster dominate so strongly, that everything else falls away. We are not surprised at all, that several ladies left the room and neither were the pale faces at the film’s end a surprise.
No, then “Charley’s Aunt”, the jolly, fun student comedy (9 acts) which preceded it. Howls of laughter erupted about the hilarious situations. It was a good compensation for the main feature and it would maybe be recommended to switch them around.
The news was interesting and extensive.

Nobody could accidentally blunder into The Bride of Frankenstein, 4 years later, based on the advert, though. (Of course, that’d not always be the case). The Cinema theatre had this sequel:

CINEMA presents You:
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
Freely adapted from the story by MARY WOLLSTONE CRAFT SHELLEY. In the lead BORIS KARLOFF as THE MONSTER
The sensational driven to a peak!
An unbelievably fascinating depiction on film of Frankenstein’s sinister monster!
Hundreds of thousands of sensation lovers, trembling of emotion, have already witnessed the creation of the artificial bride and hundreds of thousands will follow their example.

New Year’s Misrule

One of my early New Year’s memories is visiting my grandfather and seeing, on the roof of a municipal building, a complete farmer’s wagon. In an 1985 newspaper article someone remembers about such an occurrence, decades earlier: My father, who came from the Hogeland (northern Groningen) told us in all colours about it. They would take a wagon completely apart, take the axels out, take the sideboards off, and then it was put together again on top of a farmer’s barn. My father also told that they sometimes loaded the wagon full of manure. (…) Once we were dragging an enormous barrel of fish offal. It stank awfully. We just had it standing on a bridge when the police came for control. The barrel was left standing there, of course, and we were covered with gunk. (…) Sometimes farmers would chase us. They were already waiting for us, and then they had their fun. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)

Dragging in Emmen, north-east Netherlands, 1959

New Year’s pranks like this happened in our village too. Ulrum is a small village, yet it had four churches. That it was the seat of the 1834 Seccession may have to do something with that. Members of some of these churches were not really on speaking terms; “we are not Brothers,” as the Freed Christian Reformed Article 31 members had it. Yet, one Old Year’s Day, after their Old Year service, they had to interact with each other when all bicycles of churchgoers were swapped between churches. My brother adds: “I did it a lot in my youth, starting already during the evening, continuing through out the night. Our main goal was to block church doors and entrance roads to the village. But we also did other pranks such as placing mannequin dolls on top of roofs, changing the name signs of villages in the neighbourhood etc.” From the 1985 Nieuwsblad van het Noorden article: “The young people were getting giddy in anticipation of the dragging. We were thinking of stunts everyone would be talking of the next day.” He still has good memories of the time when he and his friends during the Old Year service swapped all the coats from churchgoers of the two churches. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)

The Old Year church service fell victim to pranks a few more times: once when one youth brought in a box of eggs and, from a perch near the back, released the eggs, one at the time. The church floor sloped towards the choir, so each egg would quickly gain speed, rattle underneath the benches and, if it didn’t come to a stop at someone’s feet, come to a yolky end at the front. Another time, someone removed the spark plugs from the electric church organ, bringing a hymn from a full ‘all registers’ to a premature and whimpering anti-climax.

For many years, an old car, a clunker, would be secured ahead of New Year’s Eve, and then after midnight rolled to the village square by local youths and set alight. The fire brigade would be prepared, but wait a while before extinguishing it, meanwhile standing around the fire themselves with a pot of beer. The local Spar owner, poor Mr. Scheper, would also be prepared and have his insurance papers ready, as many years his shop windows would burst through the heat.

Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may be reminded of that novel’s own clunker (here spelled ‘klunker’), a decrepit car which stands on a frozen lake in Laketown, Wisconsin. The place is protected by Hinzelman, a kobold who does so in exchange for the midwinter sacrifice of a child. Every year, residents hold a raffle in which they predict the date when the klunker will finally crash through the ice, signalling the end of winter. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I would guess that dragging the klunker onto the ice is also a communal, almost ritual, effort. What all these traditions in common have is some kind of shared effort, or a spectacle involving the public destruction of a focal object, to mark the turning of a season.

American Gods‘ Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) with Hinzelmann’s klunker.

Sanne Meijer, a blogger from Groningen, writes:
In some villages the youth goes out on New Year’s night to “drag”: moving objects which have been left lying around outside the house. In the past, farmers’ carts were placed on roofs; now it’s usually smaller objects being moved. Sometimes to a central location, but it can also happen that people really have to search the next day, to get their flowerpots and garden furniture back.
“Dragging” is often part of an “Old Year’s Stunt” which was used to put a village or club in the spotlight. In the last weeks of the year a particular object of note disappears from the village, which then is placed back at the turn of the year. On the 31st of December 2013 the signs for “Most fun village of the province Groningen” were removed from Niekerk, and then appeared the next day in the village of Kornhorn.
One of the best known stunts was the appearance of Lenin in the Frisian village Oosterwolde. On New Year’s day 1998 a giant statue of Lenin had appeared in the village. It turned out to have come from Tjuchem in Groningen; the owner had imported it from the erstwhile USSR.

Lenin, 9 metres tall, in Friesland.

To prevent their stuff being dragged, people used to make sure that they’d put everything that could be moved in the shed. I remember that my dad would make sure that our red-and-white painted trash can (easy to recognise when there are twenty bins at the roadside for collection) was safely locked up. Still, looking on the Internet you see reports of place-name signs being swapped, ‘for sale’ signs being moved, orchestrating a garden gnome football match, and what else the youth can invent. There’s a fine line between “slepen” (dragging) and “slopen” (wrecking); swapping people’s garden furniture to have neighbours puzzled or mildly inconvenienced is one thing; dragging their stuff away to set alight is another. You can see both, and the sheer scale of dragging, in this 1978 footage taken in the northern villages of Ulrum, Leens, Wehe, Eenrum and Zoutkamp. In front of Ulrum’s town hall stands a manure wagon, a shopholder is rebuked for having rip-off prices per grafitti, a lot of farm equipment blocking the roads… Do watch it!

As with many unwritten rules, this is not always clear, and slepen can easily turn into slopen. A Nieuwsblad van het Noorden commentator already rings alarm bells (or death knell) of the dragging custom:
Another tradition is moribund; the tradition of (in the countryside) the dragging of goods from one place to another. At first glance nothing to lose sleep over, except maybe for those who experience the loss of any tradition as painful and the curse of the modern age. But there’s more. The traditional dragging has been replaced by violence and vandalism. According to the Groninger police force New Year came with chaos, fires and vandalism. It was the same in the other northern provinces. A sad development. Dragging wasn’t always fun for the victims, but it was never more than teasing neighbours or fellow villagers. Whomever had lost something in New Year’s Night, usually knew where to search the next day. Now the dragging has turned into vandalism, searching is no use, as the belongings will have been destroyed. This is bad business. When people are out to cause damage and misery, then it’s about time for the powers that be to sit around the table to talk about these developments. Whether it’ll help can be doubted, but the chance that these conversations leak through to the perpetrators and calms them down can not be left unused. (Nv/hN, 02 Jan 1978)

When slepen becomes slopen – bonfire on the Zuiderdiep in the city of Groningen, New Year’s Eve, 1966

Then again, already in 1962 there were those who’d rather see it go altogether:
START WELL: NO DRAGGING
A custom can be old and good, and should be kept, but a custom is not good because it’s old. It’s a custom for some to drag the goods from others in New Year’s Night, because they find it funny, or because it happens each year, or because their parents used to do it, or to tease, or another reason. However, this custom may be old, it is not good, and should be banned. Let’s start the new year well. A good start is half the job done. Sincerely, G.W.M. ZIJLSTRA, Grootegast. (Nv/hN, 28 Dec 1962)

There are more subtle societal sides to dragging which are easily overlooked:
People would leave stuff outside on purpose. When you thought that you’d secretly dragged something away, they were thinking from behind the curtain: Finally rid of that old wheel-barrel.” However, it could also be corrective: Sloppy farmers had to search and haul back a lot, while the youth was watching and sniggering. People who had placed themselves too much outside of society would find their door barricaded with dragged stuff: “We were dragging those empty oildrums to a peculiar shopkeepers couple. As children we were afraid to pass them; you were not even allowed to stand in front of the shop window, because he’d come outside with a stick and if he got the chance he’d beat you. Someone like that would be put to rights.”

New Year’s pranks are a tradition of the northern Dutch provinces, and the domain of teenagers, the older youth. New Year’s mischief is an example of the upsetting of the normal order, and the short reign of the Lord of Misrule. Think of the passages in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame set during the Feast of Fools (set in the book on 6 January), in which Quasimodo is made the False Pope; while the historical Feast of Fools was an ecclesiastical ritual in which upper and lower clergy would trade places, Hugo’s story widens it up to larger and wilder social context, more akin to the (unrelated) Roman Saturnalia. Rituals of inversion have obvious appeal in situations where there is a rigid hierarchy – such as a military chain of command. The British Army have a tradition, begun in 1890, of officers serving their soldiers in bed on Christmas Day. The drink? ‘Gunfire’, which is black tea laced with rum. Even deployed troops have their small taste of Christmas misrule, as often their Christmas dinner is served by officers. In Groningen too it was tradition that farmers would treat their staff on a good meal at Midwinter; something to come back to another day.

Quasimodo as Pope of Fools, 1844 illustration from Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.

Saturnalia was celebrated on the 17th December, later extended until the 25th. It included gift-giving, gambling and, indeed, role reversal: in particular slaves were given licence to disrespect their masters, and they were treated to a luscious banquet. It was a time for free speech, called “December liberty” by the poet Horace. This levelling of social hierarchy was temporary and had its limits; social norms were not threatened, as the holiday would end. In our contemporary society, it would be the youngsters, living under the thumb of their parents and teachers, and in general having low societal influence, how are allowed for one night to be out all night and engage in mischief, as long as after New Year they’re back to good behaviour.

But how then to match a Roman and a Catholic tradition to something what seems to be more pagan, playing out over the Eastern provinces which fall in the Nether-Saxon language area? Lazily, I wander to the wiki article about the Germanic Yule feast. A description of the pagan Yule has sacrifices left, right and centre, and drinking and toasting. Drinking and toasting isn’t unknown to New Year’s revellers, of course, but the sacrifices are harder to place in the current context (there are other Midwinter traditions that fit, like gift giving and even the carrot for St Nicolas’ horse). With a bit of imagination we can see dragging a clunker through the village for the bonfire as a faint echo of the dragging of the yule log, the communal effort to bring the object to be burnt, the thing that sparks the new year.

The 7th C saint Eligius, who worked for 20 years to convert the pagan population of Flanders to Christianity was said to have been firm about what his listeners had to renounce: the godless and nonsensical merriment on the 1st of January, making sculptures of people and harts, holding big meals, sending round of New Year’s gifts and well-wishing toasts. A century later, Boniface still wrote in anger to the pope about the heathen noise at New Year. There are strange customs we’ve lost: our Germanic forefathers may sit on the roof with a sword with magic runes, and from which way the wind blew they’d know what the new year would bring. Others may sit on a bull’s skin on a crossroads, where they’d fall asleep. Fairies who were trekking round on New Year’s night, as it was their migration night, would predict the future in passing. (Nv/hN, 31 Dec 1985)

These bands of fairies are not unlike the Wild Hunt, and with the Wild Hunt, with supernatural activity and undead beings walking the Earth, we’re getting closer to roaming youth causing mayhem. Are these youngsters a reenactment of the Wild Hunt? I am also reminded that all of this happens at the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new; a sort of organised chaos is allowed to happen in this liminal period in which people ask each other, “What day is it again?” It’s almost as if it’s a mini-Ragnarok, a “mini-end-times’, a reenactment of when Loki, the Nordic and Germanic trickster and Lord of Mischief, turns against his fellow gods, and battles at the side of the giants, in a cataclysmic war, after which the world will resurface ‘anew and fertile’. Are our youth allowed, for one night only, to be Loki turning against their fellow people?

And what will you be up to on New Year’s Eve?

(RvS)