Benjamin Welton

Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Weekly Standard, Listverse, Metal Injection, and others. He currently blogs at literarytrebuchet.blogspot.com.

Old Dark House Movies

Although detective stories frequently revolve around a missing person (a crime that allows a little bit of chaos to pervade our brains with destabilizing questions) and murders, most end with tidy conclusions that attempt to restore some semblance of justice or order. A glaring exception to this rule is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1958 novella The Pledge (Das Versprechen), an anti-detective novel that calls itself a “requiem” for the genre. In the novella, a retired police chief devotes his private life to solving a murder after making a pledge to the dead girl’s parents. Ultimately, after the detective fails to convince others about the legitimacy of his favorite suspect, the readers (but not the detective) learn that the suspect was in fact the killer, but his death during a random car accident prevented the police from finding any meaningful evidence of his guilt. Read a certain way, The Pledge, which muses on the corrosive nature of humanity’s unwillingness to live with mystery, is both a horror story and an ultra-black comedy.

Still, over 50 years later, mystery fiction remains the province of rationalism. Fictional detectives are there to demystify seemingly occult problems. Our favorite detectives, like the groovy teenagers of the Scooby-Doo franchise, are there to pull the mask off the monster. This is why the mystery genre is so often added to horror stories. Audiences can only take so much grotesque anarchy before they start calling for a resolution, a salvific police officer or a private investigator.

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During the 1920s and 30s, a slew of stage plays appeared in New York and beyond that commingled not only horror and mystery, but also comedy. Known collectively as “old dark house,” these plays, in the words of  film lecturer Gary Rhodes (author, Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row), “typically involved the gathering of a family, or a group of strangers, at a creaking and neglected property.” The reading of a will, often one penned by a rich, old eccentric, is the reason for the assemblage, and not long after the concluding paragraph a murder occurs. For the remainder of the play, the cast bumbles their way through the secrets of the dead man’s fading mansion, which always full of secret passages, trapdoors, and revolving bookshelves until the murderer (who was sometimes a gorilla) is caught. This is the old dark house genre in miniature. At their peak, old dark house plays had popular runs on and off Broadwaywhile the very best either wound up with Hollywood adaptations or helped to inspire original productions such as D.W. Griffith’s One Exciting Night (1922) and Midnight Faces (1926). Others, like Ralph Spence’s The Gorilla, which specifically labeled itself as a “Mystery Comedy,” proved so enduring that multiple adaptations flooded the 1930s and ‘40s.

The big three of the old dark house plays are The Cat and the Canary, The Monster, and The Bat, and each were made into successful films. Each play is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, with mad scientists and super criminals terrorizing hapless Jazz Age types. Women are frequently targeted, while egghead and masculine males engage in feuds stemming from unrequited love. Money predominates as the driving factor, although not all of the criminals have such sane motivations. This is the case in Crane Wilbur’s The Monster, a light-hearted and very American take on the French tradition of Grand Guignol, a once well-known theatre in the Pigalle section of Paris that trafficked in gory and grotesque stage plays.

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The Monster became a moderate success with Wilton Mackaye performing the role of the insane Dr. Gustave Ziska. According to Marvin Lachman in The Villainous Stage: Crime Plays on Broadway and in the West End, The Monster ran for a total of 112 performances overall and earned plenty of attention from Hollywood producers. Central to The Monster’s success is the lead protagonist Johnny Goodlittle—a small town yokel who dreams of becoming a private eye. Like a lot of The Monster’s audience, Goodlittle spends his working hours wrapped up in fantasies about being Sherlock Holmes, or at the very least being like the rough, hardy, and capable men who filled advertisements in the pages of 1920s pulp magazines. Goodlittle’s chance at greatness comes when a disappearance strikes his hometown of Danburg. The case leads him and others (including a love interest) to an abandoned sanitarium, where Dr. Ziska holds court as the chief torture doctor interested in operating on the human soul.

If The Monster had been made in France instead of America, the play would have been colored an entirely different shade. Whereas Dr. Ziska and his henchmen, all of whom were once patients inside of the sanitarium, help to foster comic relief in Wilbur’s play, their counterparts in the Grand Guignol tradition would’ve removed Goodlittle’s eyes before further eviscerating him. In fact, André de Lorde, the chief scribe for Grand Guignol, wrote a bloody number entitled “Crime in a Madhouse” about the ultraviolent lives of psychotics inside of a French asylum. Miraculously, despite Ziska’s obsession with esoteric surgery and his clear state of mental deterioration, Goodlittle and company make it out of their ordeal a-ok, thus highlighting that although old dark house plays contained lots of murder, they were rarely dour or even scandalous.

Like The Monster, The Cat and the Canary, which was penned by John Willard, did a hot run on Broadway before becoming an even more successful film. Paul Leni’s movie version is a must-see, and is frequently regarded as one of the greatest old dark house films ever made (the greatest of course is James Whale’s ribald send-up, The Old Dark House). The original play is no less fun, with a secluded Westchester mansion being the gathering point for an entertaining selection of cousins. First and foremost among them is Annabelle West, an innocent flapper and one of the few relatives not guilty of watching the dead patriarch’s wealth like a cat watching a trapped canary. Because she bears the West name, Annabelle is named the sole heir of Cyril West’s vast fortune. Because of this, her night inside of Glencliff Mansion is fraught with havoc, from the murder of solicitor Roger Crosby to the romantic rivalry between cousins Harry Blythe (a role that was played by Willard himself on Broadway) and Charlie Wilder, both of whom seek Annabelle’s hand in marriage. While trapped in the supposedly haunted house, the extended members of the West family also learn that an escaped lunatic is on the loose, which of course means that he’s somewhere in the house already. Can Annabelle live through the night without losing her mind and thereby forfeiting her right to Cyril West’s fortune? That is the question.

The Johnny Goodlittle role in The Cat and the Canary is named Paul Jones, a self-declared horse doctor who introduces himself by saying: “I have felt better—but on the other hand, I have felt worse.” Such simpleton simpering is reminiscent of the characters portrayed by Don Knotts, especially the scaredy cat journalist Luther Heggs in the very old dark house film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Although the Jones character borders on the ridiculous, The Cat and the Canary ultimately ends as a clever mystery story with a somewhat plausible reveal. Whereas The Monster feels like the forced transformation of a grotesque splatter punk drama into family-friendly fare, The Cat and the Canary is a uniquely comedic Gothic mystery play that clearly inspired one of American literature’s most enduring tropes.

Finally, when speaking of old dark house plays, one cannot overlook the most important of them all: The Bat. Co-written by mystery fiction legend Mary Roberts Rinehart (author of The Circular Staircase and originator of the phrase “The butler did it”), The Bat is a potboiler set in and around the wealthy summer mansions of upstate New York. This time around, however, the villain is a costumed super-criminal named The Bat. Part Fantômas (the pre-World War I French pulp villain favored by the Surrealists) and part Professor Moriarty, The Bat is a master cat burglar and murderer who terrorizes not only New York City, but also the isolated summer home of heiress Cordelia Van Gorder. As it customary in old dark house yarns, The Bat worms his way into Van Gorder’s rented mansion just in time to witness other greed-based machinations take place.

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Although a better-than-average piece by Rinehart standards, The Bat has enjoyed a certain level of cultural currency not only because of numerous film adaptations, but also because the character of The Bat (especially the version portrayed in 1930’s The Bat Whispers) directly influenced Batman, the caped crusader of Gotham City. Bob Kane, the co-creator of the Dark Knight, stated in his 1989 autobiography that Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s masked criminal did indeed provide the blueprint for Bruce Wayne’s alter ego.

As an American art form, old dark house helped to establish not only a narrative trope that remains strong in the horror movie industry, but it also helped audiences to accept a little slapstick comedy and mirthful anarchy in otherwise tension-filled productions. And, by continuing large portions of the gothic tradition, the old dark house plays of the 1920s and 30s helped to produce a transatlantic approach to suspense that embraced detective fiction’s rationalism rather than running away from it. The old dark house genre reminds us that disparate elements are sometimes closer than first glances would lead us to believe. Like a lonely old house during a summertime storm, we often fail to recognize every hidden recess. Inside there is a little bit of comedy, a little bit of horror, and a lot of mystery the main ingredients of old dark house, to be sure, but also the major components of any modern story.

The Sensational Lives of Clergymen

Beginning in the nineteenth century, the English-speaking world saw the rebirth of a strange type of clergyman: the priest-scholar interested in the otherworldly. While men of the cloth have long been part of the Christian intelligentsia (as have many scientists, inventors, and philosophers), with the nineteenth and twentieth century decline in church attendance and the rise of a techno-scientific elite, a small group of occult-minded priests and pastors began reviving the medieval and early Modern tradition of the holy man as expert demonologist. Along the way, these men, most of whom proudly upheld the stereotype of the eccentric English gentleman, helped to lend a certain level of respectability to the study of monsters and murderers.

Of course, given that we are talking about the post-Enlightenment world, the difference between men like the Anglican priest-scholar Sabine Baring-Gould (born 1834), an antiquarian, hagiographer, and scholar, and Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, the sixteenth-century German priests who composed the anti-witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum, is fairly large. While the latter were steadfast believers in the existence of witches and witchcraft, the Reverend Baring-Gould, best known as the composer of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” studied such things as werewolves and revenants as a rationalist scholar interested in the origins of myth and folklore.

Baring-Gould’s interest in the darker strains of European superstition would have marked him as a person-of-suspicion during the witchcraft trials that erupted throughout Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. If not for his belief that lycanthropy was the result of a mental disorder, Baring-Gould may have faced the Inquisition owing to his Protestant faith alone.

When the prolific Baring-Gould died in 1924, the spirit of his work was picked up by another unusual English clergyman. Born Augustus Montague Summers in Bristol, Montague Summers initially trained as an Anglican priest and was ordained as a deacon. However, rumors abounded that Summers had a less than passing interest in Satanism. More shocking still, Summers was charged with molestation, but was acquitted. These two rumors prevented Summers from advancing in the Anglican Church and followed him throughout his life. Summers devoted one of his volumes of poetry to Antonius, the young male lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, which continues to be used as evidence of Summers’s leanings towards pederasty. Partly owing to these vocational roadblocks, Summers converted to Catholicism in 1909 and began claiming that he was an ordained Catholic priest. Known for wearing a simple black cassock and a biretta at all times, the eccentric Summers began publishing books like The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and The Geography of Witchcraft in the 1920s.

Whereas Baring-Gould brought heavy skepticism to his subject, Summers’s work openly displays his belief in the existence of vampires, werewolves, and witches. German sociologist Max Weber would argue that this difference is due to the differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine. More specifically, Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues that Protestantism, with its heavy emphasis on rationalism and economic thrift, creates a type of mentality, or “spirit” that creates an inquisitive impulse that is not easily satiated by traditional explanations. Catholics, on the other hand, “prefer to sleep undisturbed” and prefer “a life of the greatest possible security, even with small income, to a life of risk and excitement…” Within Weber’s prism, Baring-Gould’s approach to the supernatural is thoroughly Protestant because it seeks to understand historical superstition from a rationalist, well-researched position. Conversely, according to Weber, Summers’s reaffirmation of European superstition is very Catholic because it merely accepts the dogma of the medieval church as factual.

Of course, this Weberian reading of Barine-Gould and Summers fails upon closer scrutiny. After all, Weber linked heavy rationalism with Calvinists, not the quasi-Catholic Anglicans. Still, the stereotype of the even-minded Protestant and the pearl-clutching Catholic persisted well into the twentieth century. Interestingly, this stereotype was somewhat subverted by two other occult-minded clergymen, both of whom discussed the supernatural via fiction. One was British, the other American; one was a Catholic convert, the other an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Most importantly, one achieved fame and respect during his lifetime, while the other was relegated to the sleazy pulp markets. Both men, Monsignor Ronald Knox and Reverend Henry S. Whitehead, helped further extend the phenomenon of the strange clergyman as something delightfully native to the Anglosphere.

Henry St. Clair Whitehead began his life in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on March 5, 1882. From here, he followed the time-worn WASP trajectory of Harvard (where he graduated alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1904), travel, and a prestigious job as a newspaper editor in Port Chester, New York. Instead of entering into politics, Whitehead decided to attend Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut in order to become an Episcopal priest. After becoming a deacon in 1912, Whitehead was posted to the Danish West Indies (today’s U.S. Virgin Islands) between the years 1921 and 1929. Even before Whitehead returned to the States and settled in Dunedin, Florida, he had already made a name for himself as a short story writer with a taste for the fantastique. Whitehead tapped into his Caribbean surroundings and began writing about something that was sure to both scare and tantalize the readers of the pulp magazine Weird Tales: voodoo.

Whitehead’s best tales take place in the Virgin Islands and feature the narrator and protagonist Gerald Canevin, a fellow writer and Whitehead’s alter ego. The supernatural pervades Whitehead’s version of the West Indies, with voodoo rituals and curses as common as rainclouds or local legends about lost pirate treasure. “Passing of a God,” widely considered Whitehead’s finest story, treats Haitian voodoo as a topic of intellectual interest, especially since the subject had been covered in 1929 by the once enormously popular travel writer William Seabrook in The Magical Island (which would provide the source material for the 1932 horror film White Zombie). Whitehead was a serious student of Haitian folklore and did know quite a bit about the practice of voodoo in the West Indies. It’s unknown whether or not Whitehead seriously believed in black magic, but he certainly wrote as if the topic was within the realm of possibility.

“Passing of a God” and Whitehead’s other macabre tales are smart, well-crafted odes to conventional, if not exotic, horror. Despite his friendship with fellow Weird Tales regular H.P. Lovecraft, Whitehead did not write about cosmic monsters or the inability of humanity to comprehend the contents of the universe, even though the two collaborated on the short story “The Trap.”  Whitehead’s contributions to Weird Tales were frequently out-of-step with the magazine’s usual content. This may be why Whitehead is so little-known today. The only whisper of his legacy in popular culture remains Lucio Fulci’s 1979 film Zombi 2, a zombie film about a voodoo curse on the fictional island of Matool (based on Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands).

While Whitehead lived a dual existence as a church rector and producer of uncanny and bizarre horror stories, Ronald Knox was busy codifying detective fiction, a close cousin of horror fiction, in Great Britain. Inspired by his religious training and his desire to make detective fiction more respectable, Knox created a set of ten commandments for the Detection Club, a formal group of British mystery writers of the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy S. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. The commandments are as follows:

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow;

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course;

3. No more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in a kind of house where such devices might be expected;

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end;

5. No Chinaman must figure into the story;

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right;

7. The detective must not, himself, commit the crime;

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader;

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but only very slightly, below that of the average reader;

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Knox, an Anglican priest at Oxford before his conversion to Catholicism in 1917, particularly wanted to rid British detective fiction of the influence of Sax Rohmer, whose popular character Doctor Fu-Manchu (the “Chinaman” of rule number five) blurred the lines between pulpy, overly sensationalist speculative fiction and detective fiction. For Knox and the other members of the Detection Club, mystery stories were first and foremost logical puzzles posed to the reader. Rationality and deductive reasoning were the meat of the genre, not trapdoors, happenstance, and the supernatural.

As with most commandments, Knox’s stipulations were frequently broken. Even when British mystery writers of the 1930s tried to conform to Knox’s dictates, they could not fully escape their chosen genre’s affinity with horror fiction. After all, death is the ultimate mystery, so anything dealing with death is bound to be a little spooky. Knox’s own detective novels were no different, with 1927’s The Three Taps, featuring the insurance investigator Miles Bredon, being the most outré.

Try as he might, Knox was in many ways a relative not only of Whitehead, but also Baring-Gould and, to a lesser extent, Summers. These four men were not only clergymen who all shared an interest in the Stygian aspects of life, but they were all dedicated writers who crafted books and short stories that dealt more with the secular world than the cloistered one. Some, like the Catholic Knox and the Anglican Baring-Gould, looked to scientific rationality when it came to the topic of human darkness. The Episcopalian Whitehead and the Catholic Summers did the opposite, writing about superstitions as if they were universal facts.

Taken together, these four men problematize the stereotypical dichotomy of the reasonable and analytic Protestant versus the credulous Catholic, which in turn may say something about how Christianity reacted to the growth of secularism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the age when popular occultism reached its peak in North America and Europe thanks to seances, spiritualism, and certain groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (which included members like Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats), these clergymen carved out space of Christianity among the darker strands of popular culture. Interestingly, they came not to proselytize, but to remind readers that this world is full of magic, some of which is conducted in the shadows.

Red Wolf

Regarded as the Dracula or Frankenstein of werewolf novels by the few who have read it, Guy EndoresThe Werewolf of Paris is the story of Bertrand Caillet, a young man from the French provinces who is born into the world as a werewolf. After ravaging his hometown, Caillet travels to Paris as a student, but ends up becoming ensnared in both the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune. In Paris, Caillet is shadowed by his “uncle” Galliez–a cantankerous veteran of the 1848 revolution who knows full well Caillet’s true nature. While Galliez tries to stop Caillet from his continuing attacks and Caillet tries to use romantic love as a way to transcend his lycanthropy, France descends into revolutionary madness, thus turning the novel into a story about supernatural and historical bloodletting.

The Werewolf of Paris is better known as The Curse of the Werewolfthe 1961 Hammer film starring the notorious party animal Oliver Reed as the titular lycanthrope. The film adaptation of Endores novel is far from faithful. The novel’s setting of 19th-century France becomes 18th-century Spain, while the relationship between Galliez and Caillet morphs from one of conflict and resentment to a tragically loyal bond. Such transformations were necessary. After all, its unlikely that audiences in 1961, even the most forgiving teenagers available on both sides of the Atlantic, wouldve liked to have seen Endores novel transferred onto celluloid without dramatic changes.

Like the Columbia-educated Brooklynite Endore himself, The Werewolf of Paris is a visceral, almost primal novel that includes loud political denunciations. At the top of Endores hit list is the rich, who are closely followed by the Roman Catholic Church. Endore–a longtime member of the American Communist Party who was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee while working as a screenwriter in Hollywood–cannot resist a good dig at both the French aristocracy and its bourgeoisie, whom Marx characterized as a financial aristocracyin The Class Struggle in France, 1848-1850.

The march through the regal city of Versailles, between lanes of closely packed people, a fanatic multitude, void of all sense of balance, void of pity and of intelligence. The city of the rich here demonstrated that it, too, could form mobs as mad as those of the poorest quarters of Paris. No bare, dirty or calloused fists were shaken at the cohort, but neatly gloved hands, hands of demimondaines in lace gauntlets, and hands of bankers in yellow kidskin.

This is the main thrust of The Werewolf of Paris–politics and history first, horror second. Since The Werewolf of Paris was published in 1933, such pronouncements wouldve been cheered by large segments of the reading public. Indeed, on April 10, 1933, The New York Times noted that a record 4,030 copiesof The Werewolf of Paris had been sold in a mere twelve days. Yet, The Werewolf of Paris has little to do with the Great Depression, nor does it have all that much to say about werewolves. Similar to Count Dracula, who, like a shadow, lingers away from the page for most of Bram Stokers novel, the werewolf in The Werewolf of Paris takes a noticeable backseat to Endores presentation of the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune.

La Monde Diplomatique writer Carl Grey Martin correctly summarizes that Endore had a deep interest in the revolutionary moments of the 19th century. In The Werewolf of Paris the critical years of 1848 and 1871 inform a majority of the books action, even despite the fact that the book is supposed to be an eyewitness manuscript presented to the reader by an unnamed American doctoral student living in 20th-century Paris.

1871 is especially important, for this is when Endores race of the werewolveswas born among the intrigues of the leftist-proletarian Commune, then baptized by the repressive violence of Adolphe Thiers and the forces of the French Republic. Against such purely human slaughter, the deeds of the werewolf Bertrand Caillet seem minor.

Endores characterization of history as red in tooth and claw (especially towards the poor) goes hand-in-hand with his mixing of fact and fiction throughout The Werewolf of Paris. Historical figures such as Thiers, the far-left revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and the painter and Communard Gustave Courbet co-exist and interact with Galliez and his doomed nephew Calliet. For his own part, Calliet, a sadistic neer-do-well who joins the National Guard as a way to make a little money without many responsibilities, bears more than a striking resemblance to Sergeant François Bertrand, the so-called Vampire of Montparnasse.Like the fictional Callieta who as a werewolf raids cemeteries in order to find easy meat–Bertrand was a sergeant in an infantry regiment who was convicted of grave desecration in 1848 after numerous corpses in Paris were found mutilated. During his defense, Bertrand claimed that he was seized by a certain type of madness that told him to rob graves for their human contents. Similarly, Calliet first suffers from realistic dreams that are full of murder and bloodlust. Then, when he realizes that the dreams are actually real, he  suffers violent urges that can and do turn him into a snarling animal.

In regards to the fantastical, The Werewolf of Paris fails to call forth the supernatural in any way that would be familiar for most horror readers. Caillets lycanthropy is portrayed as a mental disorder rather than a spiritual affliction, and his transformations stem from his mental disquiet rather than the cycles of the moon.

Caillets affliction was caused by a priest named Father Pitamont, who raped Calliets teenaged mother during a rainstorm in Paris. This blasphemous event was seconded by Caillets birth, which fell on Christmas Day. These two perversions are what create the werewolf curse. Essentially, they combine the ancient (the peasant fear of a child being born on Christmas) with the modern (rape and molestation allegations against the Catholic Church), thus forming a neat precursor to the novel’s primary oddity: the appearance of a figure from medieval superstition in the middle of modern history.

For all of its historical and social commentary about the great class struggle, The Werewolf of Paris presents a weak werewolf story that cannot compete with other horror heavyweights, past or present. This is, after all, a political statement masquerading as the fantastique. The werewolf Caillet loses his exceptional status due to his surroundings, which are themselves historically exceptional. When the normal world is full of barricades and tit-for-tat massacres, a werewolf can only find logic in a looney bin before calling the whole thing a mistake. By the end, all we are left with are a series of gruesome images that are swallowed up by the bigger events happening around them. Politics and history trump story and monster. Werewolves cannot compete with history’s horrors.