Wednesday 30 October 2019

Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Written in 1820 before Halloween as we know it even existed, the best known and loved of Washington Irving's stories has become a Halloween classic... Perhaps even the Halloween classic. This status is no doubt due as much to Walt Disney's classic animated version appearing on televisions throughout the United States and Canada as to the qualities of Irving's writing itself. Nevertheless, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving taps into a primal vein. Published alongside his other most famous story Rip Van Winkle in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving adapts an archetypal European myth into the colonial milieu, itself a period of primal myth-making for American culture. Against the backdrop of autumn in New York and the American Revolution comes this potent story of ghostly pursuit. You have George Washington, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross... and the Headless Horseman.

Many North American tall tales have their roots in European legends and ghost stories. A particularly horrific one is known as the "Wild Hunt": those dark, moonlit nights when a phantasmagorical troupe of spectral huntsmen charge through forest roads astride their night-mares, cursing, killing or carrying off any mortal in their path. A popular modern American version of it is the song "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend," written by Stan Jones while he worked for the US National Parks Service in Death Valley. The better-known American take on the Wild Hunt is, of course, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The Headless Horseman pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, 1858.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

William Hope Hodgson's The Voice in the Night

There are a few things that we, the ordinary creatures of the world, share our planet with that seem like they should be from another. Echinoderms are one such group: unlike most animals, which have bilateral symmetry (an even number of appendages and orifices, such that each half is a mirror image of the other), the group composed of starfish, brittlestars, sand dollars, sea lilies, and sea urchins have radial symmetry... A bizarrely alien odd-numbered arrangement of limbs. Another is fungus. 

Though superficially similar to plants, they lack the common decency to be plants. Instead, they occupy their own niche, mainly revolving around the consumption of decaying matter. While many types are a food source, their instrumental role in the cycle of decomposition gives them a disquieting association with rot and corruption. For many people, they are an allergen, and some varieties are outright toxic. Altogether they are revolting organisms. 

Those attributes make fungus a prime candidate for stories of horror. Bram Stoker describes the boxes Dracula brings with him aboard the doomed ship Demeter not so much being filled with earth as with mould. H.P. Lovecraft said of his Dunwich that "it is hard to prevent the impression of a faint, malign odour about the village street, as of the massed mould and decay of centuries." Some storytellers have taken it a step further, from fungus being a symbol of corruption and decay to being the active agents of it. William Hope Hodgson accomplished this in his disquieting story The Voice in the Night, originally published in Blue Book Magazine in November 1907. 

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Ferdinand Zecca's À la conquête de l'air

In one short but majestic minute, French special effect pioneer Ferdinand Zecca introduced the world to the first ever film to depict aviation. 

Born in Paris in 1864, Zecca's career in theatre segued into film, first through Gaumont and then to Pathé. As a favour to Charles Pathé, Zecca set-up the company's exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle and soon became indispensable as Pathé's right hand man. When the company looked to evolve beyond "actualities", short shots of everyday events, Zecca was given free reign to experiment with Scientific Romances, fairy tales, and religious films. His own realization of La Belle au bois dormant was released in 1902, Les Aventures de Don Quichotte in 1903, and La Passion de Notre-Seigneur Jésus Christ (La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ) in 1905, among many, many other films. 

À la conquête de l'air is one of his earlier films, released in 1901. Though only a minute in length, it is an extremely complicated subject. The short depicts Zecca himself piloting a kind of aerial bicycle over the neighbourhood of Belleville, Paris. His method for achieving the effect - which allows the towers of the city to be seen through the spokes of his bicycle - isn't entirely obvious and demonstrates an accomplished understanding of trick photography. His aerial bicycle is the very image of Scientific Romance, taking him on a flight of fancy two years before the Wright Brothers' accomplishment at Kittyhawk.