Archive for May, 2012

Robert Bloch’s “Torture Garden” Part 1

Posted in Amicus, Robert Bloch, Torture Garden (1967) with tags , , on May 30, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

German poster for “Torture Garden” (1967).

When I was about 12 years old, I went to a birthday/slumber party of one of my classmates. I don’t remember much about it, not even the boy’s name, but I do recall the movie his father showed us on a film projector in the back yard. It was the 1967 Amicus film “Torture Garden”, and it scared the crap out of me.

“Torture Garden”, like most of the Horror films produced by Amicus Productions, is an omnibus of multiple vignettes, strung together by an over-arching narrative thread. American author Robert Bloch (of “Psycho” fame) wrote the screenplay based on some of his short stories, which he then tweaked to suit the main storyline, which is set in England.

The framing narrative tells of a group of people who are lured to a tent labeled “Torture Garden” by a carnival barker promising “the greatest thrill you’ve ever had in your life!” Once inside, they are greeted by Dr. Diabolo (played by actor Burgess Meredith with much campy gusto) who shows them what appears to be nothing more than a collection of tableaus showing various ancient modes of torture and death, culminating in a figure in a functional electric chair. Upon throwing the switch, a few of the guests are startled but quickly recover. Diabolo then announces that the exhibit has come to an end, but that for a five pound note he will take any interested parties into the next room to see the “real exhibit”.

The guests complain at first, claiming that they’ve been hoodwinked, but Diabolo stealthily plays upon their egos and coaxes them all into the next room where he introduces them to the figure of “Atropos, Goddess of Destiny; in the left hand, the skein of life, in the right, the shears of fate. Each colored thread represents a human life, and the shears have the power to cut it short.”

Colin Williams, one of the three gentlemen of the group, scoffs claiming that “It’s just one of those mechanical figures that tells your fortune for a penny.” Diabolo concedes that it can do just that, and more.

He tells the group that Atropos can tell the ultimate horror, which is the horror that each one of them has hidden inside of themselves: their “inner evil”. Thus forewarned, he claims that they might be able to change their respective current paths and avoid their “monstrous act(s) and the hideous consequences”.

He then invites Mr. Wilson, who seems to be the most vocal of the doubtful within the group, to be the first to give it a try, instructing him to “…look at the figure…it can’t hurt you. Now look at the shears…” telling him repeatedly to look deeply, thus hypnotizing him into a trance where he experiences his personal horror which is the first episode of the omnibus, which is based on the Bloch story “Enoch”.

September 1946 issue of Weird Tales, which first featured the story “Enoch”, by Robert Bloch.

“Enoch” first appeared in the September 1946 edition of Weird Tales magazine and has appeared in various collections since then, most notably in the 1960 Arkham House collection of Bloch stories entitled “Pleasant Dreams—Nightmares”.

“Pleasant Dreams–Nightmares”, Arkham House, 1960.

The original tale is a brilliantly written yarn about a man named Seth who lives alone in a shack by a swamp that has an imp named Enoch that lives on top of his head. He never sees it, and although he feels it pacing around on his head, he can never grasp it, though at times he finds evidence of its having been there in the form of nasty little scratches upon his neck that “bleed and bleed”.  Tiny and cold, pressing on the base of his brain, it whispers to him. It asks him to do horrible things, it asks him to murder, and if he ignores it, it will torment him until he obeys, but when he does what it says it rewards him by sending his consciousness into an alternate plane where Seth is a king and can have any woman he wants and every whim and desire granted.

When a victim is in his vicinity, Enoch describes them to Seth, sometimes even giving him their names, and tells him the best way to lure them and to kill them. In his confession to District Attorney Edwin Cassidy (after he is found out), Seth describes the process:

“He always makes me cut the heads off and leave them,” I went on. “I put the bodies in the quicksand, and then go home. He puts me to sleep and rewards me. After that he goes away—back to the heads. That’s what he wants.

In the interest of keeping Seth from seeming too crazy on the witness stand, D.A. Cassidy tries to get him to keep Enoch out of his testimony. In an effort to cajole him into changing his story, he offers to take on Enoch for him during the trial so Enoch won’t interfere with the proceedings.  Unsure, Seth reminds Cassidy of the consequences of such a concession but Cassidy doesn’t really believe in the imp anyway and only plays along to humor his client.

D.A. Cassidy will soon come to regret this decision.

In “Torture Garden”, Seth is changed to Colin, and he’s not a swamp dweller, but rather a middle class Englishman who is calling on his ailing uncle who lives in a mansion that used to belong to a witch.

Local gossip says that Colin’s uncle always paid his debts in gold coins, so Colin figures he will get some money out of his uncle before he dies. When his uncle tries to tell him that he in fact has no money, Colin interrogates him, withholding his medication until he tells him where it is hidden. His plans are foiled, however, when his uncle succumbs without telling him what he needed to know.

After the coroner takes his uncle’s body to the morgue, Colin rifles through the house searching for a clue as to where his uncle’s money was kept. Under the bed, he finds a trapdoor that leads him to what turns out to be the grave of the previous tenant. Upon unearthing the witch’s coffin, he finds a headless skeleton and a black cat that jumps out and scurries into the house.

Later the cat speaks to him telepathically and says that its name is Balthazar and that it has come to stay with him, to serve him, as he served his uncle. He will reward him as he rewarded his uncle, in return for things he must do for him (Balthazar).

Although the imp from the original tale, Enoch, had some cat like qualities, he was never described as being one. In fact, there is only one time where he is actually seen and only briefly as a white streak as he is summoned by Seth.

Most of the remaining movie plot follows the basic outline of the original tale but changes out the things that are germane to the Deep Southern setting of the original tale and replaces them with English ones.  In the tale, Seth is a more or less willing participant whom has lived with the imp most of his life, where the witch’s familiar of the movie is something new to the main character. His rewards in the tale are more subjective whereas in the movie they are more material. The ending is changed as well with Colin falling victim to D.A. Cassidy’s fate. The climax of this segment was the one that scared me the most when I saw it as a kid, but I now prefer the original story ending by far.

Atropos and Colin Williams.

Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Old Gods Waken”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 20, 2012 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Recently, I had the good fortune of coming across several short stories by Weird Tales alumnus Manly Wade Wellman. Now, I had been aware of him for decades, because of his association with Weird Tales magazine, which was the alma mater of many of the 20th century’s biggest names in the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror genres, many of whom were part of the “Lovecraft Circle” of writers that under the guidance of H.P. Lovecraft, helped create and expand upon the original Cthulhu Mythos. This elite group consisted of many Weird Tale luminaries such as Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert E Howard, and Robert Bloch, to name a few. Wellman, however, was not part of this circle (although he later apparently wrote some covert Mythos tales in his later years and even made reference to his WT colleagues within these tales), and so I ignored him for years, and only now do I see the error of my slight.

Weird Tales July 1946, featuring the novella “Shonokin Town” by Manly Wade Wellman.

Manly Wade Wellman delved into several different Fantasy subgenres creating characters that he would return to in various short stories and novels over the span of his decades-long career, including Hok the Mighty (Swords & Sorcery), Detective John Thunstone (Occult Mystery), and most famously, John the Balladeer.
John a/k/a “Silver John” is a traveling minstrel who lives in mid-20th Century Appalachia. He is a veteran of the Korean War and a home-grown scholar of local folklore and occult knowledge. In Wellman’s stories John roams from town to town singing old-timey folk tunes (some genuinely traditional and some original to the tales) on his silver-strung guitar, which he also uses to ward off local haints (i.e. ghosts) and a host of supernatural creatures which hail from Native American and European folklore, as well as the odd Weird Tales indigene. The stories, though never preachy, do have some Christian overtones, but it all seems to fit within the contextual framework of the stories, which are also full of genuine Appalachian folk beliefs, customs and patois, that all serve to enrich the stories and give them an air of authenticity.

“The Old Gods Waken” 1979 Doubleday.

Silver John appears in 30 some-odd tales as well as 5 novels; one of which I read recently called “The Old Gods Waken”. In this slim novel, Silver John agrees to help a couple of friends (Luke and Creed Forshay) settle a land dispute with a couple of recently transplanted Englishmen who are trying to set up a fence just beyond the legal border of their land, and in the process encroaching upon the Forshay’s territory. During a meeting with the Brits, Brummit and Hooper Voth, a couple of eccentric brothers with a keen interest in Druidism and the indigenous folklore, Silver John notices some odd things on their land that make him uneasy so he enlists the help of a couple of knowledgeable friends, the lovely Miss Holly Christopher, who is part Cheyenne and well read in many anthropological subjects and an older Cherokee man named Ruben Manco, who is equally acquainted with many local folk beliefs and traditions. Holly and Luke hit it off right from the start but end up getting kidnapped by the Voth brothers, whom it seems intend to use them for some nefarious Druidic rituals. Creed who is injured in the kidnapping, is told to rest up while John and Ruben agree to go retrieve their friends and end up embarking on a quest, bonding with one another while facing 7 specific perils on their way through the forest and up the mountain to the Voth estate where their friends are being held. The individual challenges feel almost like the hillbilly versions of the sort of tests a Homerian hero would have endured in an odyssey of yore. I won’t say anything more so as not to ruin the fun of reading them as they appear in the tale, but I do recommend you check it out if you can ever find a copy of this book in a library or second hand store.