The Mysteries of Myra

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Aleister Crowley in 1912.

Back in 1999 I found myself making notes for a short essay on the subtle and often tenuous presence of Aleister Crowley in cinema. Despite Crowley’s reputation in the early years of the 20th century—famously labelled by tabloid hyperbole as “The Wickedest Man in the World”—he doesn’t seem to have ever been filmed. He does have a succession of cinematic avatars, however, in a variety of thrillers and horror films, usually manifesting in the guise of a fictional magus whose exploits will be based on the more lurid public perceptions of the Crowley persona.

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After some research my short essay bloomed into a longer essay then began developing into a book-length project which I had the good sense to abandon. The idea still interests me but I didn’t have the time or resources to devote to all the detailed research such a project would require if it was going to be done thoroughly. It was also difficult at that time to see the some of the more obscure films, a crucial early example being Rex Ingram’s 1926 adaptation of The Magician, Somerset Maugham’s first novel whose central character, Oliver Haddo, is based on Crowley. The Magician has now been restored and reissued but at that time it was out of circulation entirely.

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A Portuguese magazine ad.

It’s also the case that there always seems to be more to find on this subject, a prime example being The Mysteries of Myra, a lost serial directed by Leopold & Theodore Wharton which has only now come to my attention. If the title seems vaguely familiar it’s because the screenwriter was one Charles W Goddard whose earlier The Perils of Pauline survives as a touchstone for silent melodrama if nothing else. The Mysteries of Myra dates from 1916, and is distinguished by being one of a number of films which received effects advice (and publicity, of course) from Harry Houdini. The Pulp Reader has a précis which includes this toothsome blurb:

BEWARE THE BLACK ORDER! So comes the warning from the spirit of Myra Maynard’s father, who reaches out to her from beyond the grave to warn her of danger from the masters of the occult arts that lurk in the shadows and mark her for murder on her eighteenth birthday. Only the world’s first psychic detective, Dr. Payson Alden, and his friend Haji the Brahman mystic, can save clairvoyant Myra from the terrors of The Grand Master of the Order, who tries to claim not only her fortune but her life by means of suicide-inducing spells, invasion of her chamber by spirit assassins, and even reanimation of the dead by a fire elemental.

A list of the episode titles reads like a track list for a metal album or a collection of Algernon Blackwood stories: ‘The Dagger of Dreams’, ‘The Poisoned Flower’, ‘The Mystic Mirrors’, ‘The Wheel of Spirit’, ‘The Fumes of Fear’, ‘The Hypnotic Clue’, ‘The Mystery Mind’, ‘The Nether World’, ‘Invisible Destroyer’, ‘Levitation’, ‘The Fire-Elemental’, ‘Elixir of Youth’, ‘Witchcraft’, ‘Suspended Animation’, ‘The Thought Monster’. The Black Order menacing the imperilled Myra (there’s always an imperilled woman in these things) is almost certainly based on Crowley and his acolytes. John Symonds’ biography The Great Beast contains an account of Crowley’s rituals published for appalled American readers in The World Magazine in 1914. That article, and the famous 1912 photo of The Master Therion gesturing in his ceremonial robes, was all the filmmakers would have required to create their villainous cabal.

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The Black Order at work.

The trouble with this kind of drama is that the description is often a lot more stimulating than the stodgy reality, so it may be for the best if Myra’s exploits have perished. Anyone eager to know more should avail themselves of the photonovel put together by the Serial Squadron using stills (some of which may be viewed here) and a novelisation of the serial story. The book is reviewed at Lovecraft is Missing. Unless anyone knows better, I’d say Aleister Crowley’s curious film career began with Myra’s mysteries.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Mask of Fu Manchu
Aleister Crowley on vinyl

Weekend links 58

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Oya by Alberto del Pozo (1945–1992). Also known as Yansa, Oya is Changó’s third wife. She is the goddess of the winds and of lightning and is mistress of the cemetery gates. Passionate and brave she fights by her husband’s side if needed. Her favorite offerings are papaya, eggplant and geraniums. From Santeria at BibliOdyssey.

Austin Osman Spare is a good example of the dictum that quality will out in the end, no matter how long it remains buried. Overlooked by the art establishment after he retreated into his private mythologies, a substantial portion of his output was equally ignored by occultists who wanted to preserve him as a weird and scary working-class magus. One group dismissed his deeply-felt spiritual interests in a manner they wouldn’t dare employ if he’d been a follower of Santeria, say (or even a devout Christian), while the other group seemed to regard his superb portraits as too mundane to be worthy of attention. Now that Phil Baker’s Spare biography has been published by Strange Attractor we might have reached the end of such short-sighted appraisals and can finally see a more rounded picture of the man and his work:

[Kenneth] Grant preserved and magnified Spare’s own tendency to confabulation, giving him the starring role in stories further influenced by Grant’s own reading of visionary and pulp writers such as Arthur Machen, HP Lovecraft, and Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer. Grant’s Spare seems to inhabit a parallel London; a city with an alchemist in Islington, a mysterious Chinese dream-control cult in Stockwell, and a small shop with a labyrinthine basement complex, its grottoes decorated by Spare, where a magical lodge holds meetings. This shop – then a furrier, now an Islamic bookshop, near Baker Street – really existed, and part of the fascination of Grant’s version of Spare’s London is its misty overlap with reality.

Austin Osman Spare: Cockney visionary by Phil Baker.

Austin Osman Spare: The man art history left behind | A Flickr set: Austin Osman Spare at the Cuming Museum | HV Morton meets Austin Spare (1927).

• More quality rising from obscurity: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End. Skolimowski’s drama is one of unpleasant characters behaving badly towards each other. Anglo-American cinema featured a great deal of this in the 1970s when filmmakers disregarded the sympathies of their audience in a manner which would be difficult today. John Patterson looks at another example which is also given a re-release this month, the “feral, minatory and menacing masterwork” that is Taxi Driver.

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Echú Eleguá by Alberto del Pozo. Among the most ancient of the orishas Echú Eleguá is the messenger of the gods, who forges roads, protects the house, and is heaven’s gate-keeper. In any ceremony he is invoked first. He owns all cowrie shells and is the god of luck. A prankster, Echú Eleguá frequently has a monkey and a black rooster by his side. Like a mischievous boy he enjoys gossip and must be pampered with offerings of toys, fruit, and candy.

Minutes, a compilation on the LTM label from 1987: William Burroughs, Jean Cocteau, Tuxedomoon, Jacques Derrida, The Monochrome Set, and er…Richard Jobson. Thomi Wroblewski designed covers for a number of Burroughs titles in the 1980s, and he also provided the cover art for this release.

Mikel Marton Photography: a Tumblr of erotic photography and self-portraits.

From Death Factory To Norfolk Fens: Chris & Cosey interviewed.

NASA announces results of epic space-time experiment.

Oritsunagumono by Takayuki Hori: origami x-rays.

Plexus magazine at 50 Watts.

Mother Sky (1970) by Can | Late For The Sky (1974) by Jackson Browne.

Two Brides

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Ah, sweet serendipity… What are the odds, dear reader, of two blogospheric friends posting equally splendid pictures of everyone’s favourite hand-stitched and reanimated woman within days of each other? (It helps that Evan P and Monsieur Thombeau share a number of interests but let’s not spoil the moment.) The Gray’s-like dissection above is the work of illustrator Martin Ansin, while the painting below is by Michelle Mia Araujo, or Mia, as she prefers. Both artists have produced a quantity of other work which demands your attention. As for James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, it is, of course, one of the great cultural artefacts of the previous century; if you’ve never seen it there’s a Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester-shaped hole in your life which needs to be filled without delay.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Mask of Fu Manchu
Berni Wrightson’s Frankenstein

Betty Blythe

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Yesterday’s search for Betty Blythe pictures turned up this pair which I couldn’t resist posting, with Ms. Blythe posed against a peacock in the first and wearing a peacock-styled outfit in the second. As I’ve noted before, silent films are very often like Symbolist paintings come to life, and The Queen of Sheba (1921) would appear to be another of these which makes its loss all the more disappointing. The photo below is from a Flickr set whose user has her own Tumblr blog of silent movie stars.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Mask of Fu Manchu
Salomé posters
Ruth St Denis
The Feminine Sphinx
Lussuria, Invidia, Superbia
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

The Mask of Fu Manchu

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Myrna Loy, Charles Starrett and Boris Karloff.

Los Alamos ranch school where they later made the atom bomb and couldn’t wait to drop it on the yellow peril. The boys are sittin’ on logs and rocks eating some sort of food there’s a stream at the end of a slope. The counsellor was a southerner with a politician’s look about him. He told us stories by the camp fire culled from the racist garbage of the insidious Sax Rohmer. “East is evil, west is good.”
William Burroughs, The Cat Inside.

More pulp, and yes, it’s still racist garbage but Charles Brabin’s 1932 film which stars Boris Karloff as Sax Rohmer’s Oriental super-villain has its pleasures if you look past the severely dated attitudes. Together with The Black Cat (1934), where Boris plays a Satan-worshipping modernist architect (!), this is one of the best non-Frankenstein Karloff films of the 1930s, as I was reminded this weekend when re-watching it along with several Sherlock Holmes episodes.

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Christopher Lee is elegantly diabolical in the later Fu Manchu films but their cheap budgets force him to skulk around in dismal underground lairs. Boris’s Doctor has a lavish Art Deco pad whose huge rooms are furnished with a noisy Van de Graaff generator and other scientific apparatus, plus a series of torture rooms where his guests can endure death by encroaching spikes (the “Slim Silver Fingers”), being lowered into an alligator pit or driven mad by the incessant tolling of a giant bell. I happened to notice that the Doctor’s throne is quite possibly the same one (with a fresh coat of paint) as was used a decade earlier by a notoriously unclad Betty Blythe in The Queen of Sheba (1921), a lavish silent epic which is now unfortunately lost.

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Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba.

The flaunting of Ms. Blythe’s breasts were one of the many occurrences which led to Hollywood’s adoption of the Hays Code in the 1930s, although the Code’s full effects weren’t felt until later in the decade. The notable scene in The Mask of Fu Manchu where hunk Charles Starrett appears strapped to a table dressed in nothing but a skimpy loin cloth (having previously been thrashed by Fu’s lustful daughter) would have been toned down considerably had the film been made a few years later. All the more reason to watch it today, such scenes only add to the fun.

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The Doctor prepares to inject his captive with a serum which will turn the man into a compliant slave.

The Mask of Fu Manchu | A page about the original serial, the subsequent novel and its illustrators.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Wladyslaw Benda