Peter Cushing’s notes on playing Sherlock Holmes for his performance in The Hound of the Baskervilles [Hammer Films, 1959]:
Morning suit—hat—gloves?—cane. Cape over tweed suit (no hat). Put stains and burns on gloves. Don’t make Holmes obvious—or his suspicions. Suspect everything. Don’t do jackets up at all. Get nervous energy over. Just slip pipe to mouth (not open mouth). Puff clouds of smoke. Sardonic sense of humour. Flashes of steel after laconicness. The deerstalker has been dyed a little. Do cuffs up as if buttoned—short links. Make top quiff of hair stand up a little. Have hypnotic quality. Slight mystic quality.
Dialogue from Horror Express [Granada Films, 1972]:
Inspector Mirov: But what if one of you is the monster? Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know!
The actor Christopher Lee first met Dennis Wheatley in 1964 at the book department of Harrods where the author was giving a lecture entitled, “Magic and the Supernatural.” Wheatley was, at the time, one of the world’s bestselling novelists. His success was largely built on the popularity of a string of black-magic themed thrillers. Although he wrote across many pulp genres—swashbuckling adventure and espionage, historical romance and science fiction—his name became, and indeed remains, synonymous with the occult. Lee, then starring in the first wave of Hammer horror films, was attending the talk as a fan. When it was over he introduced himself to Wheatley and asked if he could have the author’s blessing to approach Hammer about adapting his 1937 novel, The Devil Rides Out.
It had been three decades since the book’s debut and during that time genre cinema had gone through a series of ups and downs. Following the decline of Hollywood monster movies in the 1940s, and the dominance of science fiction in the 1950s, it appeared by the end of the latter decade that gothic cinema was dead. Post-war fascination with space and the atom had banished supernatural themes almost entirely from popular culture. It was Hammer Films that reversed the trend. Starting in 1957, with The Curse of Frankenstein, the English production company resurrected the horror genre, breathing new life into the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy franchises, with Lee in the often thankless role of monster in each. By the early 1960s, a gothic revival was in full swing. Wheatley—“graciousness itself,” as Lee remembers—gave the actor complete authority to represent his book to the studio. Lee then began the long, surprisingly complicated process of selling it to producers Anthony Hinds and James Carerras.
The Devil Rides Out, like Wheatley’s first novel, The Forbidden Territory, features the Duke de Richleau, an aristocratic French exile living in then-contemporary Britain, who leads a modern band of “musketeers,” comprised of the American adventurer Rex Van Ryn, the English gentleman Richard Eaton, and the Jewish financier Simon Aron. These friends courageously charge into harm’s way to rescue one another and foil intrigues. The novel begins with the unusual absence of young Simon from a reunion with his friends, Rex and the Duke. Convinced that something must be wrong, the two gentlemen go immediately to Simon’s house where they find him hosting a reception for the “astronomical society” that he has recently joined. Although Simon is very anxious for his friends to leave before the meeting officially begins, the suspicious Duke mingles with the other guests, overhearing curious bits of conversation that leave him certain that something sinister is afoot. When he finds a satanic temple in Simon’s observatory, his suspicions are confirmed. He and Rex kidnap Simon before their young friend can be fully indoctrinated into the cult. From then on they are locked in a psychic battle with the satanists and their leader, Mocata. One lurid set piece follows another—car and airplane chases, demonic apparitions, mesmerism, women in peril, occult warfare, satanic orgies, a Tibetan monastery on the astral plane, and a black mass presided over by the horned, goat-headed Devil himself.
“It took me years and years to convince Hammer to make it,” Lee says, in his rich, distinctive baritone, “mainly because of all the censorship problems involved in dealing with satanism and the black mass. I had first mentioned The Devil Rides Out to Tony Hinds around 1964. At the time, I said to him, ‘You really ought to look into this, because it is very interesting material, and nobody has done this in England for years and years.’ So eventually Tony read the book and an arrangement was made for Hammer to buy the rights to film it.”
By late 1964 the company had optioned the novel. Hinds first commissioned a screenplay from author John Hunter, who had written one of Hinds’s own favorite pictures, Never Take Sweets From a Stranger. But Hunter’s screenplay was judged too “English” for the ever-lucrative American market, and was thus rejected. Next up was novelist Richard Matheson who had several years earlier been hired by Hammer to write an (ultimately un-produced) adaptation of his own vampire story, I Am Legend.
Matheson recalls that he had no previous knowledge of Wheatley’s work until Anthony Hinds sent him a copy of The Devil Rides Out. “I liked the novel very much,” he says, “so I agreed to write the script. Dennis Wheatley was certainly very happy with it. He sent me a letter thanking me for how faithful my adaptation was to his book.” Matheson’s screenplay cuts out some of the riskier and more expensive-to-film storylines—including Mocata’s plan to recover the phallus of Osiris, in order to start a second World War, and an airplane race across Europe—but he retains the story’s narrative thrust.
Lee was initially asked to play Mocata. As the actor recalls, “I told Hammer, ‘Look, enough of villainy for the time being, let us try something different and let me be on the side of the angels for once.’” In fact, he had already shown that he could play quite effective “good guys” in a number of films for the studio, including The Hound of the Baskervilles and Taste of Fear. Thankfully, Hammer agreed, and cast Lee as the Duke de Richleau. It is a role that no one else could have played—he is elegant, commanding, and humane—it is one of the finest performances of his career.
Hammer assigned their star director, Terence Fisher, to the project, and Charles Gray was cast to play Mocata. Gray gives the role a velvety smugness, suggesting an undercurrent of evil and obscenity beneath the surface. Lee says, “the casting definitely did work. I thought Charles Gray gave a marvelous performance as Mocata.” Wheatley based the character on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley. The two men knew each other socially, having been introduced by Wheatley’s neighbor—and Crowley’s onetime acolyte—the Labour MP Tom Driberg. Wheatley treated Crowley to a couple of lunches at the Hungaria Restaurant on Regent Street in the early 30s when he was researching The Devil Rides Out.
Although Lee never met Crowley, he is well versed on his life, claiming, “Crowley was an extraordinary man, who lived for a time at a house on the shores of Loch Ness, Boleskine, which is a very grim and foreboding place indeed. I know, because I went there. He was also one of the first people in history to climb a major Himalayan peak without any oxygen. He ran the ‘Abbey of Thelema,’ in Sicily, where he practiced obscene and blasphemous rituals, for which the police subsequently ejected him. He was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and called himself The Great Beast 666. He ended up living as a rather harmless old man, in the seaside town of Hastings, in England, after having labeled himself for many years as the wickedest man in the world.”
While Wheatley accepted the public role of occult expert, he was quick to dissuade members of the public from investigating the subject too deeply. “Don’t meddle!” was his official stance. In a disclaimer at the beginning of The Devil Rides Out he warns, “Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject […] I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practice of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.” Lee echoes these sentiments: “I have always been interested in black magic and know how terribly dangerous and obscene it can be. It is still practiced in different forms all over the world. The forces of evil are let loose, we know that. You’ve only got to look around to see that, so I think I know a good deal more about the practice of this particular evil than most people.”
Wheatley’s knowledge of the occult was supplemented by Lee, who conducted his own research. For example, Wheatley never provided the specific words of the dreaded (and fictional) “Sussamma Ritual,” which plays an important part in the climax of the film. As the Duke and his friend, Richard Eaton, are bombarded by black magic, huddled inside the safety of a magic circle, the following exchange takes place:
RICHARD: Can’t we do anything but just stand here? Isn’t there any way of fighting back? DE RICHLEAU: Only one. RICHARD: What? DE RICHLEAU: The last two lines of the Sussamma Ritual. RICHARD: For God’s sake then, what are you waiting for? DE RICHLEAU: I dare not use them until our very souls are in peril of destruction. To do so would destroy us as effectively as it would stop Mocata. It can alter time and space…
Drawing the suspense out to the breaking point, Fisher waits until the circle is about to be broken before cutting to De Richleau, who stands facing the onslaught, arms thrown up in the “Sign of Apophis and Typhon,” from the rituals of the Golden Dawn, finally delivering the dreaded lines: “Uriel Seraphim Io Potesta Zati Zata Galatim Galata.
This incantation comes from the Grimoire of Armadel, a book of ceremonial magic written in the 1600s. The version Lee consulted at the British Museum was apparently a copy of the original text held at the Bibliotheque d’Arsenal in Paris. Lee carefully chose eight key words from the “Operation of Uriel Seraphim,” a magical spell to put the Devil in a bottle, for “the last two lines of the Sussamma Ritual.”
The attention to detail appears to have filtered down to the art department, where Hammer’s resourceful production designer, Bernard Robinson decorated the various temple spaces with complex astrological and cabbalistic imagery. These touches of verisimilitude give the illusion of higher production values. Both Matheson and Lee agree that the special effects could have been improved upon, if only there had been more money available. “The whole scene where they’re protecting themselves from psychic attack should have been more of a scene,” complains Matheson. “It was indicated to be such in my script. It wasn’t supposed to be a giant spider that attacks them. That was something they had to put in to save money.” In Wheatley’s novel, what appears was “a Saitii manifestation of the most dangerous and powerful kind…which had a whitish pimply skin, leprous and unclean, like some huge silver slug.” This was deemed too difficult to shoot. Nor was it possible (or advisable—”Don’t meddle!”) to depict the black mass in any detail.
Not surprisingly, though, the eroticism was played up. After the success of Rosemary’s Baby, 20th Century-Fox re-named it The Devil’s Bride for the US release, quickly taking out trade ads that proclaimed, “There has never been so much interest in the Devil’s sex life as there is today! Make your arrangements for the wedding now.” Lee laughingly recalls that, “One of the executives at Fox, in all his wisdom, decided that if it were called The Devil Rides Out in America, everyone there would think they were going to see a western!”
Since its initial release many Hammer fans have come to regard The Devil Rides Out as the studio’s masterpiece. Lee has sometimes distanced himself from the work he did with Hammer. Of Dracula, the character and its legacy, he says, “I have no connection with it whatsoever, nor do I wish to have any. Nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest I ever got was when I did Count Dracula in Spain, with Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. I had a mustache and I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it was a mess, for production reasons.” His regard for The Devil Rides Out on the other hand is unequivocal. With effusive warmth, he declares, “It was a magnificent film, done in the best Hammer tradition.” Wheatley felt the same way. “Dennis was a very dear friend of mine,” Lee says, “He gave me a first edition of the book, signed by him, saying, ‘Thank you for all you’ve done to get this film made and also for your performance as the Duke de Richleau.’”
An earlier version of this article was published in the Quarterly Review in 2012.
Every December we find ourselves in thrall to Charles Dickens and his seasonal classic, A Christmas Carol. Whether you read the novel every year or encounter it in one of its many adaptations and pastiches for stage or screen, there is no avoiding it. It is one of those rare stories that everyone knows, whether they have read the book or not: the miser Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by ghosts and apparitions who show him visions of his own past, present, and future, and those of the people with whom his life is intertwined, rekindling in his heart the warmth of Christian charity.
Dickens was a great keeper of Christmas. Among his earliest writings, the newspaper columns collected in 1836 as Sketches By Boz, there is a commemoration of the holiday which contains many of the themes he would later revisit in A Christmas Carol. He writes, “Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas…Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers.”
In the first half of the nineteenth-century, Christmas was not universally or extravagantly celebrated in England. Of course midwinter had been a time of revelry in northern Europe since pagan antiquity, marking the beginning of the return of the sun, and the retreat of darkness. But Christmas was never as significant as Easter in the Christian liturgical year. And while a history of merrymaking endured, especially in the countryside, where the rhythms of nature were better felt, in the busy commercial hub of London it was for many people just another day of work.
By the time Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 there were signs of a revival of Christmas in the popular culture. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert introduced the Christmas Tree to England from Germany in 1840. Two decades earlier, American author Washington Irving had recorded the surviving traditions of Christmas in rural England during his long residence in the country. “Old Christmas” was published in 1819 in Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which also contained “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”
Dickens himself included a marvelous description of Christmas festivities in his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, or, The Pickwick Papers, published in 1837. This great sprawling comic novel follows Samuel Pickwick, retired businessman and philanthropist, who, together with members of his eponymous London club, sets out on a series of misadventures to enlarge “his sphere of observation, to the advancement of knowledge and the diffusion of learning.” In one episode Pickwick spends Christmas at the manor of the rough, generous country squire Mr Wardle. Here family, friends, tenants, and servants gather together as one social body, undisrupted by the class warfare of the industrial revolution, under the benevolent lordship of Wardle. There is dancing, kissing under the mistletoe, a raucous game of blind man’s buff, quaffing of wassail, feasting, and storytelling.
It is interesting that both Dickens and Irving relegated Christmas festivities to the countryside, where the holiday and the great old manor houses in which it was still kept, were depicted as survivals of a bygone age. In the early nineteenth century this was probably accurate enough.
A Christmas Carol changed the way Christmas was celebrated in England. Dickens had intended it to do as much. He did not merely want to glorify the folk traditions of the season. The immediate impetus for the novel was his sympathy and concern for the poor, in particular children. It was a passion nearer to his own heart than anyone could have guessed at the time.
Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 during a period of maritime build-up at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His good-natured but improvident father, John Dickens, kept the family in middle-class comfort with a well paid job at the Navy Pay Office. For the first ten years of his life Charles Dickens thrived in an atmosphere of love and encouragement. He romped in nature. He read voraciously: The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding. He wrote stories and staged drawing room theatricals. But John Dickens found himself increasingly in debt. He moved the family to London in 1822 where they struggled to make ends meet. In 1824 he was prosecuted by his creditors and sent to the Marshalsea debtors prison. The entire family lived with him at the Marshalsea except for twelve-year old Charles who was put to work. A job was found for him at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, near the present-day Embankment tube station. He was paid six shillings per week to work ten hour days glueing labels to cans of boot polish in appalling conditions. He never spoke of the experience but he gave an account of it to his friend and biographer John Forster:
The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again.
In time, John Dickens paid off his creditors and was released from the Marshalsea. Charles was allowed to leave the blacking warehouse and return to a semblance of a normal childhood. But the experience changed him forever. Feelings of abandonment and betrayal and loneliness and fear haunted him long after.
The success of Dickens’s early novels made him a very rich man. He relished the role of a celebrity and a gentleman and spent lavishly on himself and his family. But the wretched children whose lives he had briefly and traumatically shared were never far from his mind. He always considered it his duty to employ both pen and purse toward a remedy for the ills of society.
When he wrote A Christmas Carol, he became, in the words of the actor and author Simon Callow,
a spokesman, not just for the oppressed and the disadvantaged, but for the essential integrity of a nation in the throes of radical transformation. There was a widespread unease at the way in which capitalism was evolving, at the loss of community and the inter-relatedness of the groups within it. The writing of the book sprang directly from his horror at the condition of children in the mines. Christmas, Dickens insisted, was mocked unless the absolute dregs of society were rehabilitated and the root causes of their rejection and elimination by society addressed.
This was something that Dickens believed could only be accomplished by the changing of hearts—and a changing of the way that business was done. He was no proto-Marxist. Callow notes, “Dickens didn’t believe you could fob off your personal responsibilities on to the state. He…didn’t believe in a welfare state, but in absolute direct human action.” How different money is in the hands of Scrooge than it is in those of Mr Wardle, or Scrooge’s first employer, the magnanimous old Fezziwig.
It is no coincidence that Dickens’s greatest call to charity was in a book that also called readers to feast and festivity. All of these are expressions of an expansiveness, an overabundance, a pouring forth, of the heart. One cannot exist without the other.
The monstrousness of Scrooge, as we find him at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, is in his stinginess of heart as well as money. Likewise, his reformation at the end of the novel is a conversion of the heart. Charity and benevolence and festivity and love and joy pour forth in equal measure. He becomes the Dickensian ideal: a “whole” man.
It was a stroke of genius on the author’s part to bring about this transformation with the aid of the supernatural. There is an atavistic power to the evocation of ghosts at this time of year, much as there is to the reenactment of the ancient feast.
I have always liked the English custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. It is not as popular as it used to be. We think of it as a Victorian custom, largely because of A Christmas Carol, but it is much, much older. Like other folkways it has receded from the forefront of the culture but we still encounter it.
Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).
The telling of ghost stories has a corollary in other customs that cast an eerie mood over the Christmas vigil. The parlor game snap-dragon was mentioned by Shakespeare and Dryden, and has an entry in Dr Johnson’s dictionary. It was already an old game in the nineteenth century when Dickens wrote of it in The Pickwick Papers. Snap-dragon is played with a bowl of raisins, soaked in brandy. The lights are dimmed and the brandy is set on fire, producing an uncanny blue flame. Participants attempt to snatch raisins out of the fire and extinguish them by popping them into their mouths and eating them. Writing in his journal, The Tatler, in the eighteenth century, Sir Richard Steele explained, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.”
In Pickwick Papers Dickens connected the playing of snap-dragon and the telling of “old stories” in his depiction of a Christmas Eve revel at Dingley Dell Farm, the Kentish manor house of Mr Wardle. After the dance, when the mood of the assembled guests had settled, Dickens writes:
[T]here was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.
“This,” said Mr Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”
“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.”
I think these traditions serve a ritual purpose similar to the antimasque in a masque. They are part of a performance, a folk ceremony, outside the formal liturgy of the church, that commemorates the triumph of Divine order over the fallen world.
The masque was a form of entertainment popular in Jacobean England. It was partly theater and partly dance. It would begin with an antimasque: a short vignette that represented the world in chaos. This might involve portrayals of drunken disorder, witchcraft, or war. The masque proper would then begin with the arrival of the king and queen and courtiers, disguised as ancient gods. They would conquer the antimasque and bring order to the symbolic universe of the hall—a transformation represented by a formal dance.
In the Christian liturgical year, the season of Advent that leads up to Christmas, is a time of fasting and preparation. It is a solemn season. We are given the opportunity to reflect on the hope and hardship of those who lived in the world before Christ was born into it: a world of darkness, confusion, and chaos. Every year we reenact the vigil of those who waited faithfully for the Savior through dark days. When Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas, and we remember the arrival of God in the world, darkness gives way to light, solemnity to celebration, fast to feasting, ghost stories to carols, chaos to Godly order.
The manuscripts of all five of Dickens’s Christmas novels, including A Christmas Carol, are on display together for the first time at the Morgan Library in New York where Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas runs through January 14, 2018.
Callow, Simon. (2012) Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. London: Harper Press.
Dickens, Charles. (1836) Sketches By Boz. London: John Macrone.
Dickens, Charles. (1837) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall.
Dickens, Charles. (1843) A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hall.
Forster, John. (1872-4) The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman & Hall.
Steele, Richard. (1887) Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer. London: Cassell & Company.