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Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Fall of the House of Usher: the 1928 Silent Films

Amidst his bibliography of classic tales, The Fall of the House of Usher is one of Edgar Allan Poe's best known and most frequently adapted. First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in September of 1839, it is a masterful Gothic short story about a sinister house and its woe-begotten inhabitants. Poe's narrator introduces us to Roderick and Madeline Usher, last in the long line of the Usher family.... A venerable clan beset with the maladies of aristocracy: physical, mental, and moral degeneracies. Madeline is seen but once before her apparent death by cataleptic seizure. It is Roderick who must live with the constant deterioration of his body and spirit within the confines of the oppressive manor that imprisons him. The titular house is a bleak one, crumbling from centuries of mold and decay in an unrelentingly melancholy swamp. Such visually and psychologically arresting subject matter begs for cinematic adaptation. The Fall of the House of Usher has been brought to film over a dozen times, not counting crypto-adaptations like Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015). Perhaps the best known of these is the 1960 version directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, which kicked off an entire series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The earliest were two films released in the same year of the silent era, one in France and the other in the United States. 


Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Great Moon Hoax

Of all the giants of scientific endeavour, perhaps none are as significant to history as Sir John Herschel. Already an accomplished astronomer and natural philosopher - having written A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy in 1831, which in turn inspired many scientists including a young Charles Darwin - Herschel departed for South Africa in 1833 in order to chart the courses of the southern stars. It was there that he developed his greatest invention and made the greatest discovery in the history of the human race.

The report delivered by the New York Sun on Tuesday, August 25th, 1835. Its announcement read:
In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness of making known to the British publick, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time. It has been poetically said, that the stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the Zodiack around him with a loftier conscientiousness of his mental supremacy.

It is impossible to contemplate any great Astronomical discovery without feelings closely allied to a sensation of awe, and nearly akin to those with which a departed spirit may be supposed to discover the realities of a future state. Bound by the irrevocable laws of nature to the globe on which we live, creatures "close shut up in infinite expanse," it seems like acquiring a fearful supernatural power when any remote mysterious works of the Creator yield tribute to our curiosity. It seems almost a presumptious assumption of powers denied to us by divine will, when man, in the pride and confidence of his skill, steps forth, far beyond the apparently natural boundary of his privileges, and demands the secrets and familiar fellowship of other worlds.

We are assured that when the immortal philosopher to whom mankind is indebted for the thrilling wonders now first made known, had at length adjusted his new and stupendous apparatus with the certainty of success, he solemnly paused several hours before he commenced his observations, that he might prepare his own mind for discoveries which he knew would fill the minds of myriads of his fellow-men with astonishment, and secure his name a bright, if not transcendent conjunction with that of his venerable father to all posterity.

And well he might pause! From the hour the first human pair opened their eyes to the glories of the blue firmament above them, there has been no accession to human knowledge at all comparable in sublime interest to that which he has been the honored agent in supplying; and we are taught to believe that, when a work, already preparing for the press, in which his discoveries are embodied in detail, shall be laid before the public, they will be found of incomparable importance to some of the grandest operations of civilized life.

Well might he pause! He was about the become the sole depository of wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that had lived since the birth of time. He was about to crown himself with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscientious pre-eminence above every individual of his species who then lives, or who had lived in the generations that are passed away. He paused ere he broke the seal of the casket which contained it.

To render our enthusiasm intelligible, we will state at once, that by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and entirely new principle, the younger Herschel, at his observatory in the Southern Hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered planets in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the naked eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of a hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what order of things; has firmly established a new theory of cometary phenomena; and has solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.

This understandably florid prose led to the news of the greatest discovery by the accomplished Herschel: life on the moon!

An illustration of Herschel's discoveries.

These fantastic revelations by advanced telescope technology were, of course, a hoax. The perpetrator seems to have been reporter Richard Adams Locke, in a publicity stunt for the Sun. By the sixth and final installment on August 31, 1835, the public was inflamed, Edgar Allan Poe was incensed, Jules Verne was inspired, and the Sun's readership was permanently inflated. Herschel was said to have been amused by the whole thing. The Great Moon Hoax was to the 19th century what Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast was to the 20th, and what the entire "fake news" dilemma is to the 21st.