Movie Monday: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Boy is this poster not a good representation of the film.

So, I’m watching Quatermass and the Pit, the 1967 Hammer Films remake of the classic 1958-9 television serial written by Nigel Kneale. As you are probably aware, this is not really a historical film, but I think that it’s relevant to the themes of the blog — particularly, I think it demonstrates some of the dangerous archaeology that I have referred to earlier in terms of the work of HP Lovecraft. (If you’re interested in me talking about archaeology in Lovecraft, I might write up my HPL talks as a longer piece one of these days).

Anyway, the story is a familiar one. Excavations for an Underground line reveal skeletons — happens all the time in reality. But these skeletons are a little weird: the press describes them as “underground ape men,” and they have some very unusual skulls. In another neat touch, when a metal object is found along with them, people assume it’s an unexploded bomb — as we’ve recently seen, this isn’t implausible.

(Prophetically, when the bomb squad are examining the metal object, they speculate that it’s a “Satan.”)

Meanwhile, amidst all these reminders of man’s inhumanity to man, Professor Quatermass is being prosed at about the need for military moon bases by the army. He and military rocket expert Breen (sp?) get called in to take a look at the metal object, which, it gradually becomes clear is some kind of spaceship. Simultaneously, it becomes clear that there’s something off about the whole area — people have always been frightened of it.

There’s a lovely, high-tech palaeontology lab in an old building, which is a very British thing and something I’m always happy to see. “We don’t just dig with trowels, you know,” the dude says. Of course, gradually it becomes clear that the object is a spaceship, somehow associated with these skellingtons that are millions of years old. Although the government denies the alien theory, odd things start to happen around the dig site …

I think the most interesting thing to me here is the way in which the story blends the pseudo-science of a Von-Daniken-like ancient alien thing and the traditional horror of a series of haunted-house incidents. In a way, it reminds of the way Ring 2 doubles down on its psychic pseudo-science, only a) obviously this came first, and b) less personal.

I saw goody Quatermass raisin' fundamental questions about human nature!
I saw goody Quatermass raisin’ fundamental questions about human nature!

I’m not going to recap the film here — I’m sure you can find better summaries and analysis elsewhere. But I did want to touch on the theme of dangerous archaeology a little bit. Here are some of the basic principles in bullet-point form:

  • Underground = secret = past = dead = dreams/unconscious
  • Archaeologists are portrayed as detectives, but also transgress the above-/under-ground boundary.
  • They “bring the past to life” — in education, this is good!
  • But in archaeological horror, it’s usually a bit more literal.

In my Lovecraft talk, I suggested that for Lovecraft, history and place are inextricably linked with identity. Historical or archaeological research has the potential to tell you that your history isn’t what you thought it was — which means you aren’t who you thought you were. So the specific brand of archaeological horror in Lovecraft isn’t just like a mummy or a vengeful ghost that comes to life and kills people, it’s a horror that comes from what archaeology actually does, i.e. tells you about your past. It’s just that if you’re a Lovecraft protagonist (or, as he acknowledged, Lovecraft himself) you probably don’t want to hear it. In many Lovecraft stories, learning about your past actually takes you back in time (“The Rats in the Walls”) or brings back creatures from long ago (“At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow Out of Time,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), but always with that subtext of there being an unpleasant revelation of your own poisoned heritage. (Some Lovecraft critic used that phrase, but I can’t remember who.)

In a way, the Quatermass story has the same sort of general principle — an archaeological revelation that actually regresses people to a primitive state, enacting genetic memories of a “race purge” and unleashing an urge to kill. But the film is so drenched in Gothic, diabolical imagery that its effect is very different from the poisoned history in Lovecraft — that annihilating, mutating influence. Instead of Lovecraft’s “if your history isn’t what you thought it was, then you aren’t who you thought you were,” it’s a subtly different “if your history isn’t what you told yourself it was, then you are who you were always afraid you were.

Now, in a way, I think that’s actually closer to what frightens people about what history reveals. Not that our past isn’t what we thought it was, but that it’s exactly what we thought it was, and we’re brutal, stupid, hate-filled monsters, doomed to repeat the same petty, vicious dramas forever and ever. As it happens, I don’t think that’s actually the case — I think (say it with me) it’s more complex than that — but I feel that tug just like everyone else does.

Also, the final shot — the two surviving main characters standing at opposite sides of the screen, unable to talk to or comfort each other, barely even able to look at each other — is pretty baller.

Also, Julian Glover is in everything.

Movie Monday: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Cartoon Corner: Spider-Woman (1979)

I have written in the past about superheroes and archaeology, largely inspired by the papers given at the Monstrous Antiquities conference back in November. Today, I just want to point out that there is a surprising amount of archaeology in the 1979 Spider-Woman cartoon … or, well … sort of. 

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Spider-Woman cartoon, but it seems to have been largely an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Wonder Woman, right down to the spinning transformation, here called a “spider-spin.” And yeah, you know you’re back in the olden days when Marvel is trying to cash in on a DC property. 

Anyway, the cartoon basically resembles what you’d get if you got one of the less grounded Bronze Age creators (poor old Bill Mantlo, perhaps, or maybe Bob Kanigher (I may mean Bob Haney)) and just fed them an absolute shitload of cough syrup and told them to have at it, oh, and to try to work in something educational to satisfy the FCC. Maybe the easiest way for you to see what I mean about this show’s bizarre mix of earnestness and foolery is just to watch an episode. 

Our very first episode is “Pyramids of Terror,” and it kicks off with Spider-Man being in Egypt (for some reason) where he is captured by a villainous mummy. Spider-Woman, her bumbling sidekick and her plucky sidekick go off to Egypt following a series of mummy attacks, and then … erm … 



It turns out, right, that these mummies came from space in their pyramid ships and were buried under the sands of Egypt lo these many years ago, and I guess they inspired ancient Egyptian culture, because why not? The classic motif of the Sphinx shooting beams out of its eyes is gone one better here — not only does it have eyebeams, but if the beams hit you, they turn you into a mummy!


Eventually, Spider-Woman realises that the motive force behind the alien spaceships is, no fooling, Pyramid Power and uses her webbing to turn the lead ship into a cube. 


It’s like a checklist of pop culture Egypt: 

  • ambulatory mummy
  • did ancient astronauts …?
  • Pyramid Powah!

So this is all well and good, but what’s weird is that it keeps happening. Spider-Woman is a very globe-trotting sort of heroine, and she winds up in contact with a lot of past-type stuff. 

She goes back to the 10th century to fight some Vikings: 


Fights some Amazons in a vaguely Mexico-ish sort of Amazon temple thing:

Seriously, I think the statue:eyebeams ratio is about 1:1.
Seriously, I think the statue:eyebeams ratio is about 1:1.

And there’s a few more temples and castles as well. Apparently it all gets a bit more UFO-y in the later seasons, but I’m not there yet. I really just wanted to share that mummy episode with people because, you know, pink pyramid spaceship with sphinx-shaped mummy-ray turret. 

Cartoon Corner: Spider-Woman (1979)

I Love Fake History, Part I: Motel of the Mysteries

At the recent Monstrous Antiquities conference, I was talking to some of my fellow attendees about fake history and how much I like it. By fake history in this context, I’m referring not to frauds or hoaxes, but to non-narrative works of fiction which purport to be historical documents. I have talked about this before on the blog in my completely gobsmacked post about the fake history book about the Archers that came out. 

Sometimes this comes up in a gaming context, I guess because there’s some utility to this kind of document in gaming terms … but not as much as you might think. The classic example is probably Greg Stafford’s masterful King of Sartar, a collection of jumbled and enigmatic letters, sagas and historical texts relating to the life of the possibly mythical Argrath. However, although I’ve personally had a lot of use from this book at the gaming table, I think that the parts that are useful — the backgroundy stuff about Heortling society — and the parts that are compelling — the mysterious debate surrounding the existence or otherwise of the historical Argrath — are almost completely different. However, I’m not here today to talk about Glorantha. You can tell because I have other plans for the evening. 

What I do want to talk about is Motel of the Mysteries. This is my shit right here. It’s a 1979 book by David Macaulay about some future archaeologists excavating and interpreting a motel from the “modern” era (and again, you get that thing where you have a modern era which is now 35 years in the past, so even then there’s another weird layer happening). It is told with tongue firmly in cheek and is beautifully illustrated.



Like, check out this reconstruction of one of the burial chambers. Or this image of someone wearing one of the headdresses found at the site: 


 In order to understand why I love it so much, you have to understand my relationship with the works of David Macaulay. When I was a kid, David Macaulay was producing a lot of great educational works: big, lavishly-illustrated black and white books about the creation of ancient and medieval buildings. There was Castle and Pyramid and Cathedral and so on, and they had lots of cutaway illustrations, which always seemed to exercise a particular fascination for me when I was young. 


I love that sort of thing. 

Anyway, some of them were also made into a series of programs for PBS, which was the main TV that was watched in young James’s household back in the 80s. Starring Macaulay and Sarah Bullen as themselves, these things combined a little documentary (mainly aimed at younger viewers) with an animated story, often including the voices of notable British character actors. For instance, Castle has Brian Blessed narrating. I think they actually hold up pretty well, but you can judge for yourself!

I’m sure there are some inaccuracies and they’re a bit outdated now, but I still have a lot of love. And I think the mixture of fact and fiction is very effective, much more effective than in most things that try to do it. 

Now, most of these postdate Motel of the Mysteries, but I didn’t really encounter them until they were all already out, and then I ran into the historical ones first. Because they were cartoons about the middle ages on PBS in the 80s, obviously; I have probably seen Castle 12 times, and I had the book too. I think the others came from the library. Come to that, I think I checked out the video of Cathedral from the public library on VHS not long after my wife and I started dating, probably slightly perplexing her. 

So for me, then, David Macaulay’s art was what historical stuff looked like. And when this weird-ass, mysterious, humorous archaeology thing with such spot-on illustration — which was also kind of a sci-fi story, since obviously it’s set in the future, even if only nominally — swam into my ken, I was hooked. 



It sits on my bookshelf even today, and occasionally I just take it out and look at the pictures. Such a strange thing to exist. Well worth taking a look at. 


I Love Fake History, Part I: Motel of the Mysteries

Sphinxes and Superheroes again

OK, so I know I said that I’d do the giveaway today, but I may be running out of time — it may come later or even tomorrow. Never mind, eh? Here are a few pictures from the sadly no-longer-with-us Marvel kids’ cartoon The Superhero Squad, showing that the fascination with the Sphinx continues.

Here, Hulk is battling Hyperion (yeah, Hyperion from the Squadron Supreme. Basically, we live in a permanent state of being inside the rabbit hole now).

The battle inside the Sphinx creates clouds of dust.
The battle inside the Sphinx creates clouds of dust.
Hulk goes flying out. I can't believe I saw this.
Hulk goes flying out. I can’t believe I saw this.
He comes up with some jaunty new headgear.
He comes up with some jaunty new headgear.
Technically, this is Hyperion's eyebeams coming out of the Sphinx, not the Sphinx having eyebeams.
Technically, this is Hyperion’s eyebeams coming out of the Sphinx, not the Sphinx having eyebeams.

Anyway, when I saw the Sphinx I was just reminded of the Monstrous Antiquities conference and thought I’d throw these pictures up here. More tonight if I get a minute.


Sphinxes and Superheroes again

Monstrous Antiquities: Wrap-up

So, there you have it. The four posts below sum up my experience of the conference, and they are full of links and goodness.

As for me, obviously I had a great time. Like I said, I am still trying to get the lid back on my head. This may be because the things I’ve been thinking about recently have been largely Victorian adventure and horror fiction as well as comic books and so on. I think I may be doing that thing that we all do when we reach a certain age where we attempt to locate ourselves within the general progress of Western culture. It’s like when you realise that Jack Kirby was a genius and Roy Lichtenstein was … not. Or that wargame miniatures draw on the vocabulary of monumental sculpture. Or … something.

I’m not making sense, which is probably because it’s late. I guess what I’m saying is that for me (and probably for no one else; I’m just an outsider to the topic) the conference really showed me the ways in which archaeology and art and folklore and occultism and charlatanism and quackery are all bound up with each other. And that isn’t necessarily weird — there was a book some years ago now about the influence of archaeology on Seamus Heaney, and if it’s influencing modern poetry then why can’t it be influencing video games? Blah blah blah everything is interconnected. Maybe that’s it.

I think that for me personally the history/archaeology impulse and the sci-fi/horror/nerdery impulse are very closely linked, in the sense that they are connected to my love of incompleteness and systems and the feeling of being on the borders of the unknown. That’s why I always like things that are weird and fragmentary and marginal.

As for the conference itself, it was brilliant. I liked that it was thematically tight enough that the papers wound up commenting on and tying into each other (especially the Egyptology ones) and that it was still broad enough to admit a lot of very diverse papers. It felt like a sweet spot to me. I thought the Petrie film night was fantastic, and I would have loved to have seen more of that kind of thing, although maybe not more 90-minute films. But surely there must be some way to work in, I don’t know, an art show or a field trip or something? Not necessarily this conference, I just mean in general. But if people want it to be this conference that would be fine too. I’m just saying the variety was great. Crowd was good, conversations were good, and there wasn’t one paper where I went “uff, I’m just sitting through this one.” And that’s a one-track conference. I’ve been to conferences where I was in a session that was entirely about my specialist field and found myself thinking “I have no idea why I’m listening to this.” Not that a paper is bad necessarily, just that it says nothing to me. But not here.

I’ve thanked everyone already, I think, but I know that doing a gig like that is a lot of work, so, you know, thanks again to the organisers, to the other speakers, to the volunteers, and to you, reader, for coming along to the blog to read about it. I hope you stick around. Not to be a shill or anything, but there’s a contest on Friday and you could win some inexpensive prizes. I’m just saying.

Monstrous Antiquities: Wrap-up

Monstrous Antiquities: 4

All right. It’s Friday night, I’ve got a glass of fancy gin I bought in a fit of prosperity, and I’ve got nine, count ’em, nine papers to get through tonight. Can I do it? Let’s find out!

Jasmine Day was also talking about mummies “as travelling companions,” but as she could not be present the paper was read by Tina Paphitis in a Jasmine Day costume. I am completely serious. She talked about the idea that the mummy represents some aspect of colonial guilt in horror fiction. A lot of this tied effectively into Ellie Dobson’s paper from the previous day. I enjoyed her montage of similarly-attired high priest characters from mummy films. Apparently it sometimes happened that mummies travelling on ships were blamed for storms or other bad happenings. I kind of liked the analogy she made between the high priest bringing the mummy to Britain or America and the image of people smuggling in a dirty bomb. Interestingly, vampires and Frankenstein could play the same monster-as-WMD role, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon could not.

Next up was George Richards, who was talking about Ancient Egypt in comics and cartoons: specifically, the Tintin adventure Cigars of the Pharaoh, Silver Age appearances of the Sphinx, and, my hand to god, Thundercats.

I got really wound during this talk because I was internally asking myself why Mumm-Ra was blue, and the only answer I could come up with was “Skeletor is blue,” and that’s a Fred Hoyle question, because it only punts the question back one: why was Skeletor blue? I asked Allison and she said “because he’s undead,” like that should somehow be obvious. Oh well.

And now, comics in which the Sphinx has death rays:

wwandru113 Kane


If you have not read a lot of Silver Age Superman comics, by the way, you don’t know what you are missing. They are, how you say, hopping mentile.

The thing that occurred to me during this talk was that Metamorpho had an Egyptian-style origin, maybe the only Silver Age hero to do so. I like Metamorpho.

One comment I really appreciated here was that comic artists seem to really like Egypt, visually. The art is instantly recognisable, the style is distinctive and can be imitated, and Egyptian art is even comic-book-like in a way that, say, Roman art isn’t.

OK, next up: author James Goss talked about the theory and practice of eternal curses. Now, through no fault of his, a lot of this paper — or what I got out of it at least — was a little similar to Dobson and Day. At least the first half. The second half took off a bit more, although I have my doubts about one aspect of his analysis. He was reading out some curses found on actual tombs on Wikipedia and then comparing them to the complete text in order to show how they had been “sexed up” to bolster the case for curses — he called actual Egyptian curses “disappointingly tame.” I wasn’t convinced — one line of a curse he quoted is “further, I shall seize his neck like a bird.” That sounds bad. I do not want to have my neck seized like a bird. I mentioned this after the conference to one of the Egyptology types there and he said “oh yeah, the Egyptians loved seizing necks” or words to that effect.

I wondered if the dungeon trap didn’t come from the literary trope of mechanical traps in Egyptian tombs.

Then there was a break.

Right, next up was Joanna Paul, with “The city disinterred: confronting the uncanny at Pompeii”. I am not a classicist, but I did go recently to see the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibit and furthermore I chose an image from Pompeii as the cover for the volume of ARC I co-edited with Ali Klevnas. 


So there was a lot of good stuff here, and I was particularly struck by the way the casts are displayed at Pompeii — right in the middle of houses or other rooms, sometimes apparently at random. At the British Museum they way they did it was to leave the casts right until the end, so that you walked through the “rooms” of the Roman house before coming face-to-face with the dead. It was interesting. In one way, it was much more shocking, because you experienced the bodies as people rather than curiosities, but in another way you could argue that it was sanitised, since the bodies are kept separated from the house.

There were a lot of interesting points in this talk. I was particularly fascinated by the point that there are very few Pompeii ghost stories. The dead there are very material — but the living can be kind of ethereal, as in the display that reproduces Julius Polybius and his family as holograms. Interesting. Veeeeeeery interesting. Obviously, as a burials guy, I was particularly interested in this point, but also just … you’re looking at a frozen image of the moment of someone’s agonising early death. As Michael Shaara might have put it, “a fellow needs some privacy at a time like that.”

Next up, Gabe Moshenska talked about M.R. James and his excavations at Bury Abbey. Gabe delivered this in costume also, in this case dressed as a spook or possibly phantasm. This he tied in to “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad,” a story that gave me the whimwhams one late and lonely night in Cambridge about 11 years ago.

For all that James was basically an “antiquarian fusser,” he did do some field work — on a dig in Cyprus in 1887-8, and at the chapter house Bury in 1902-3. There wasn’t much of this excavation published, sadly, but Gabe pointed out some ways that it could have served as an influence on two of his stories, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” and the aforementioned “Oh Whistle.” Gabe pointed out the way in which the latter story is also an attempt to take the sheet-ghost and make it scary. That actually never occurred to me at the time, which I think indicates that it succeeded. One other interesting thing he pointed out was that although James himself was a medievalist, his monsters are usually more modern than his field would suggest. “You need familiarity for horror.”

Closing out the session was Caterina Minnitti, talking about the presentation of ancient Egypt in video games. Now, when you do something like this, you sometimes wind up just cataloguing the obvious absurdities, and there was a certain amount of that. Take a look at this guy, for instance:


Crocodile with a laser on his head! That’s both magnificent and idiotic at the same time.

Now, that’s obviously in a game that has strong magical elements (Age of Mythology). But one that that she pointed out that I thought was very interesting was that even in games that are ostensibly mainly historical, Egypt is where the weird shit is located. “Orientalism is alive and well in video games,” she said, but also pointed out that in many ways this was an idea with roots that stretch right back into the period being discussed. For example, she quoted Herodotus as saying that Egypt had “the most wonders.” Greece and Rome are, you know, political, military, economic, and Egypt always winds up being somehow mystical. There are certain nations that we tend to have a habit of thinking of as particularly spiritual — I’m thinking Tibet here, or even India in general — and I guess this was the case for Egypt.

But seriously, video games! At this point I was seeing Aegypt everywhere. I think there’s going to be a post on the Skyrim thing next week.

So then it was lunch. Am I gonna go for it? Yes I am.

Coming back, we led off with Katy Soar on “There’s something about Nodens: statues and survivals in the works of Arthur Machen.” This was mainly about The Great God Pan and “The White People,” and it was interesting. Apparently the identification of Nodens as “Lord of the Abyss” is so much bullshit, but of course that’s what Machen was working with. And it’s interesting that Machen’s notion of survival seems to be that the civilised veneer of the present is just a skin on a past that’s horrible, whereas the Lovecraftian vision is that the past outwardly seems noble and empowering but is a lie.

And of course survivals as a concept were a thing in the anthropology of the time. Spiritualism is also into the idea of collapsing time in the same way — they’re both concepts that involve confronting the past in the present.

Also, there is squishiness. Helen Vaughn’s body should be firm and permanent, but it’s weird and fluid. There’s a similar tentacley image in “The Novel of the Black Seal.”

Nearly there! Right, next up, Nigel Tallis talked about folk horror, which it turns out is completely a thing. Now, not being British, I missed a lot of the shows to which he was referring, but I believe that Children of the Stones is up there in the trinity of things that scared the piss out of Britons d’un certain age, together with Threads and Ghostwatch. He also referred to his talk as “Nigel Kneale appreciation,” which is fair enough. I also have respect for anyone who says “most folk songs are Georgian pop music.” He also talked about the idea that people really don’t like hearing that their archaeology is uncertain, to which I can only say “nailed it.” But archaeologists have to be unafraid to say “I don’t know.” This is another difference between archaeology and fringe stuff, I guess?

Folk horror in a lot of ways is kind of a village-green version of Machen, in that it’s the idea that you have these folk customs that link you to the past, but that at heart they turn out to be completely vile and evil. The bucolic turns out to be horrific. Interestingly, though, two of the big examples, The Wicker Man and the Doctor Who story The Daemons, both involve folk customs that are actually fake, with some other person manipulating the yokels to their own ends.

And with a rush of breath we come to the last one. That’s Tina Paphitis again, this time in her own words. She was talking about “Horrors of the past: barrows and barrow-lore in fantastic fiction,” and of course if we’re talking about barrows in fantastic fiction we’re talking about Tolkien. Who knew a thing or two about literary barrows himself, of course. Barrows have a long folkloric history, and they’re actually one of the few areas where we know a little bit about how early medieval people encountered earlier barrows, naming them after heroes and considering them to be both very important and maybe a leetle threatening. In fact, there’s a good barrow bit in one of Cornwell’s Arthur books, harking back to Saturday morning.

She also talked about a Grant Allen story from 1892, in which a dude encounters some ghosts of prehistoric people, and it includes a section so baller I must quote it:

They were savages, yet they were ghosts. The two most terrible and dreaded foes of civilised experience seemed at once combined in them.

OK, no, I’m not letting that one go without further elaboration. The two greatest enemies of civilisation are barbarism and ghosts? Really? The guys with the epaulettes are sitting around their maps going “but gentlemen — what if we face an enemy that is both barbarian and ghost?” And they say nothing but swallow hard and reach with trembling fingers for the brandy.

Apparently, the Stonehenge audio guide leads you around the circle widdershins. There you go, Changeling scenario writers. Gave you that one for free.

OK, that’s it for the papers. Tomorrow, time permitting, some kind of retrospective on the whole thing. Then I’m at a wedding on Sunday, and Monday is, of course, Movie Monday. lway

Monstrous Antiquities: 4

Monstrous Antiquities: 3

OK, we’re back for the third in what will probably be a four-part series on my time at the Monstrous Antiquities conference at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL last weekend. As you have probably gathered by now, I had a grand old time. Today we’ll be covering the papers that closed out Saturday, the film night that evening and, if there’s time, the first couple of papers from Sunday. That said, onward!

The first paper after lunch was by Marek Kukula from the Royal Observatory: “‘The Accursed Galaxy’: Astronomy, archaeology and the appeal of cosmic horror.” And it was the business. You know, here’s the public face of British astronomy talking about Jack Vance in a way that indicates that he actually knows what he’s talking about. He opened up with a Pascal quote: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me …”.

So, key points: astronomy is, in many respects, looking directly in the past. When you look up at stars, you are of course seeing light that took hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach you. And the scale of astronomical antiquities is vast. Prehistorians can have ten-thousand-year margins for error in their work, longer than the entirety of history. Geologists think prehistorians are fooling themselves about their work being old. And astronomers think geologists are on some bullshit.*

(*If you are an angry geologist, that was me, not him. I mean, it was me, not him whether you are an angry geologist or not, but you know what I mean.)

“Alternative” theories came up again, and we were introduced to the technical term used in astronomy, which is the same as the one we use in archaeology:


waaaaaaaaait for it ….


And then it’s a bewildering tour of the history of ideas in proper Fortean style, best represented by a lunatic with some coloured string, but here represented for technical reasons by bullet points:

  • The Curiosity rover is doing digs on Mars. Dont’ look in the hole!
  • The eruption of Tambora in April 1815 coloured Turner’s sunsets, caused the Year Without a Summer, which in turned caused Mary Shelley et al. to be stuck inside in bad weather, which in turn caused Frankenstein, which in turn basically caused science fiction.
  • Lovecraft was scared witless by the implications of astronomical deep time. (And interestingly, unlike most people, astronomy rather than geology was where HPL got his deep time fear — he loved astronomy. Even the name Necromonicon may be derived from a poem called the Astronomicon.)
  • Plus also Jack Vance, whose deep-time-ness extends into the future rather than the past.
  • And M. John Harrison, come to that.
  • And a whole lot of other stuff I haven’t put in my notes, like the face on Mars, astronomical alignment of the Pyramids (which caused the above comment), archaeoastronomy in general, all that kind of thing. In twenty minutes!


Anyhow, this actually did me a big favour, since I was up next and my talk had been haphazardly cut down from its hour-long version. I rushed through a bunch of stuff about Lovecraft and the post-Lovecraftian Mythos, especially focusing on the use of archaeology in “The Rats in the Walls,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Long story short: Lovecraft feared being cut off from his heritage, which he regarded as an actually meaningless but symbolically very important source of strength. (And if you want to say that this is how Pillars of Sanity work in Trail of Cthulhu, I think that makes sense.) But naturally, since it was something that Lovecraft relied on to keep himself happy and healthy, he spent his fiction smashing it to bits, and archaeology here serves as the wrecking ball. Post-Lovecraft Mythos authors have not pursued this theme, possibly because they don’t share HPL’s concern with heritage.

Last up was Egyptologist W. J. Tait, whose talk was about monsters — and specifically why Egyptian legend doesn’t seem to have a lot of the kinds of monsters that other types of folklore have, such as giants or ogres. Even in the story of Sinuhe, which has been described as the Egyptian David and Goliath story the antagonist isn’t a giant. This is another presentation where I wish I had been taking photographs, because I know less than nothing about Egypt, so my main concern is monsters, and ancient Egyptian monsters look either very cool or completely fucked up. (Interestingly, Lovecraft wrote a story that ends with this as the dramatic reveal.) They’re often a combination of (to paraphrase the talk) “dangerous beasts, fire and knives,” which not coincidentally is the new title of my forthcoming album.

I don’t think I caught the answer to why there are no giants, as I was frantically scribbling scary monster descriptions in my notebook, which shows you where my priorities are. So apologies for that.

So then it was movie time. Well, more accurately it was dinner time. I ran off and ate, taking the opportunity to finish This Book Is Full of Spiders. Then back to the Petrie Museum for Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.

Oh lordy.

Now, as it happens, I like a good bad movie, so I was well-served by the movie evening. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because if you are the kind of person who is reading my blog, then there is a better-than-average likelihood that you are the kind of person who wants to see this film. But let me make a brief digression.

When I was young (judging by the date of the film, about 10 or 11), there was a poster for this film in the Horror section of my local video store, Midtown Video. And this was in the glory days of the local video store, of course, before the big chains dominated but after VHS had been around long enough for places to have a good selection. I was in there pretty frequently, and I always looked at that poster with a mixture of weird chills and incipient adolescent perviness.

Oh, don't look at me like that.
Oh, don’t look at me like that.

Now, here is a small spoiler: this poster represents an actual scene from the film, in which Hugh Grant puts speakers on the top of his house and plays snake-charmer music in order to lure evil snake-woman Amanda Donohoe out of her house so that Peter Capaldi and, erm, thingy, his love interest, can break into the place and rescue her sister. The love interest’s, that is, not Amanda Donohoe. And when the music plays, she rises up out of a basket and does a little sashay-y snake dance to the door and leaves.

I just want to see what was going on five minutes before that. What could she possibly have been doing in a basket? Like, it’s Thursday night, nothing on, so I’ll put on my vinyl villain outfit and four-inch heels and sit in a wicker basket. With the lid on! How did she even get it closed? And what did she do once she had closed it? Did she have her library book in there?

But what you’re asking yourself is “yes, James, the plots of horror movies don’t make much sense, but does this have the necessary level of anarchic goofiness and over-the-top shock?” And the answer is, well, yes, kind of. It is full of suspect acting, and the last fifteen or twenty minutes are just a carnival of absurdity that I wish I could tell you about but can’t without spoilers.

Anyway, see for yourself. Note: not even remotely safe for work and also probably copyright violation, so you should, you know, buy it if you can. It’s less than a tenner on DVD.

I have also just downloaded the book by Bram Stoker for the ol’ Kindle. I’ll be interested to see how much of the original survives into the film. I’m going to go ahead right now and say I bet the attempted dildo murder is not in the original. But I could be wrong.

I love this idea. I love the fact that the Petrie Museum has a film club. If the Whipple Museum of the History of Science had sci-fi film nights I’d die of dehydration in there. I love all that arts-engagement stuff, as who doesn’t, but naturally I’m particularly fond of it when it’s trashy, geeky and disreputable. I am sad I didn’t have any popcorn, but you can’t have everything.

OK, I know I said I would try to do Sunday morning next, but this is pretty long already and I need to be getting back to work. Stay tuned on Friday for Sunday, I guess.

Monstrous Antiquities: 3

Monstrous Antiquities: 2

So, after a relatively small amount of sleep, I got gradually back up and headed in for the third day. Unfortunately, I had mistimed my entry a little bit and missed the first half of Michael Bintley‘s paper on Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles. Now, I have written about both historical fiction and pseudo-Romano-British Arthuriana previously, and I feel like I have a pretty good grip on the genre, so I didn’t feel lost even though I’d missed the beginning, but what he seemed to be mainly talking about was the use of archaeology specifically in the Warlord books, like the quest for all the different artefacts and whatnot, and the sort of things it says about how Cornwell portrays people’s relationship with their past as expressed through material culture. This may be relevant to my next post about Skyrim! Assuming that ever happens: I haven’t picked up a controller since Thursday. But yeah, the half of this I got to hear was super interesting and I hope to read it in some form eventually. Also, I am reliably informed you should buy his book. 

Next up was Edmund Connolly, talking about “Facing the Fear of the Past in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet. This was one of the ones I felt least able to comment on, because what I know about Edith Nesbit you could write on my shoe. I have a very vague memory of having read Five Children and It when I was little, and somewhere on my backup hard drive is a copy of the Forgotten Futures supplement with the Psammead stories in it. In the course of writing this, I discovered the novel is free on the UK Kindle store, though, so I guess I’ll be reading it soon. Anyway, Connolly explained (and I speak subject to correction here) that Nesbit deploys this sense of fear relating to things that predate our own memories in all three of the Psammead books, but that the first two have sort of distancing or insulating mechanisms that aren’t present in the third one, which has higher stakes and “darker and more fearsome” adventures. He also pointed out that the book is dedicated to E. A. Wallis Budge. A member of the audience (I don’t remember who) suggested that this was tied in to a crush that Nesbit apparently had on Budge! Archaeological gossip and artistic gossip: it’s that kind of interdisciplinary thinking you read this blog for.

I write too much, and I thank Ethan Doyle White for letting me get some images up in this post, because I foolishly didn’t take any photos or anything. His talk was “‘To worship me, take wine and strange drugs’: archaeology and occultism in the work of Kenneth Anger.” Now, the only thing I knew about Kenneth Anger is that other filmmakers like to name-check him, so I was pleased that we got a bit of a beginners’ intro before an explanation of how Anger’s work was influenced by Thelema which was, in turn, of course, influenced by Crowley’s ideas about Egypt. Anger liked to use historical and mythic symbolism in his film, and his (now lost) documentary about Crowley’s Italian abbey is in itself a piece of archaeological filmmaking. So yeah. For example:

So, to be completely honest with you I have not watched either of those films all the way through, but I would suggest you probably don’t want to look at them in the office.

Now what really struck me about the role played by Egyptology in this piece and others during the conference was the prominence of bullshit Egyptology, and it occurred to me (as it occurs to everyone who thinks about Egypt more than I do, i.e. ever, I’m sure) that bullshit Egyptology, like several other bullshit fields of knowledge, has a longer pedigree than its authentic counterpart. Quackery is older than medicine, astrology is older than astronomy, and we like to talk like the one has replaced the other, but it ain’t so. I was reminded of the concept of Aegypt, which is Christopher Lehrich‘s word for the fictitious but more-or-less coherent Egypt dreamed up by medieval Renaissance philosophers and their ilk. I’m probably grossly oversimplifying that idea, but if you are interested you can check out his book.

And then it was time for tea.

You know, with the best will in the world I don’t think I’m going to get through this day of the conference before bedtime, so what I’m going to do is do the first two sessions today, then the last one and the film night tomorrow, and then see what I can do about Sunday. You can see why it’s taking me so long: three sessions in and my mind was already boggling, although Ethan assured me that there was no connection between Anger and John W. Parsons, which would have been all I needed to lose my shit.

Right, next up: Louis Greenberg, who although an academic was there in his capacity as an author. He read a section from a short story he has in The Book of the Dead, an anthology of modern mummy fiction edited by conference co-organiser John J. Johnston, and the which you can purchase here. It even supports a good cause, so you have no excuse. My notes seem a little sparse on this one, probably because I was just chilling and listening to the story and therefore didn’t get my note-taking going, but I seem to have written down a) that the monumental architecture of Paris and the monumental architecture of Egypt get juxtaposed (and I thought of Adele Blanc-Sec at that moment) and b) that women’s bodies and monsters’ bodies are constantly being described in fiction, whereas men’s are usually much more sketchily delineated. That’s very true, I thought to myself, but I never thought of it before. And once you’ve said that about something, that’s a good paper.

Speaking of woman and monsters, next up was Ellie Dobson to talk about “Uncanny statues: female mummies as art(efacts) in Victorian and Edwardian culture,” and this one went on to talk about how in some ways female mummies are often portrayed as statues or objets d’art, to be admired for their beauty, while male mummies (in both cases, the rise-up-and-walk kind) are portrayed as artefacts. I think she may have got through this without using the phrase “sex object,” which was pretty good. But maybe not. And of course, the Victorian era is the time of the public unrolling, which it doesn’t take much imagination to characterise as creepily sexual. Apparently Sidonie-Gabriel Colette (that’s just Colette to you) once appeared in a mummy-unwrapping inspired burlesque (with a woman in drag in the role of Egyptologist) that sparked a riot.


Next up, “Stratigraphy and Super-Strength: exploring the role of archaeologists in graphic novels” by David R. Howell. All week I’d been thinking to myself “what’s going to happen is that he’s going to say the Blue Beetle (the original one, that is) was an archaeologist, and then I’m gonna say, well, no, originally he was a police officer, then he was retconned into an archaeologist, then he was killed off and replaced by a scientist, and then he was killed off and replaced by a kid armed with the original Blue Beetle’s magic scarab only it was retconned to have been technological all along.” And then I would give a little nervous laugh and be like “man, I’d better not say that kind of shit in public.” Three guesses what I said.

You talk like that, people will think you’re the kind of dude that has a Blue Beetle action figure on a shelf in his living room in front of God and everybody.

This one, to be precise. Thanks, Jason.

Anyway, so this was a good overview of archaeologists in comics, and it identified them as basically people who get murdered, which I think it largely for the reasons discussed yesterday — ie that unless the archaeologist is actually the hero, he or she exists to a) start the trouble, or b) show how the trouble works, and the most efficient way to do that is to get devoured. But Howell also pointed out that there are this batch of archaeo-heroes from the 40s: you got your Hawkman, your Dr Fate. And I think it’s interesting that Hawkman was also retconned to be sci-fi in the 80s, and then eventually unretconned again, but who cares about Hawkman?

But interesting, again, that archaeology and magic, rather than science, go hand in hand. Hawkman’s powers definitely come from Aegypt, not Egypt.

Oh, and Planetary uses archaeology as a way to explore not just history in general but the history of comic books specifically, such that a comic book about archaeologists is about the archaeology of comic books. That’s clever. Also, Howell says “graphic novels” throughout, which I totally respect but there’s no way you will catch me doing that. I already showed you my Blue Beetle action figure (well, one just like it) so it’s not like you’re going to think I’m a bigger nerd than you already do.


Man damn, that was long and we are only 1/3 of the way through this whole thing. Excitement! And more excitement tomorrow, as we explore why archaeologists are wimps compared to astronomers. Also: THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD or, as I like to think of it, my paper.

Monstrous Antiquities: 2

Monstrous Antiquities: 1

So, as I mentioned, I was away from the computer this past weekend because I was attending the Monstrous Antiquities conference at UCL. It was the business. Over the next few days I’ll be posting about the talks that happened there. You can see the Storified version of the tweets that people (including me) put out during the conference here.

So the first night, Friday, saw two papers: the first was on  Druids, Deities and Daemons: Archaeological Horrors in Doctor Who, and it was by conference organiser John J.  Johnston.

There’s quite a lot of archaeology in Doctor Who, from Tomb of the Cybermen to The Daemons and so on. I think my personal favourite is the archaeologist from the Daemons, who plays the skeptic part with such obvious contempt that you can’t help but like him. There’s a great part where the news presenter asks him “professor, can you explain (such-and-such)” and he just goes “no.”

That's not tea.
That’s not tea.

As an aside, since occultism was going to be coming up all weekend, I think it’s interesting to note that the Master’s chant in The Daemons sounds to me like a variant on an honest-to-goodness Wiccan chant: Eko Eko Azarak.

As a pretty die-hard Doctor Who guy, I was familiar with most of the stories and themes covered in the talk, which was more of an overview of the subject. It introduced a couple of key things that were going to come up. For starters, it hit the whole alien-astronauts thing, which was a huge thing in Doctor Who from the 70s on. Secondly, I think it anticipated a key question that would come up on Saturday: why are archaeologists usually portrayed in an unfavourable light in Doctor Who? If they’re not just releasing evil on the world and getting killed, they’re actual bad guys. This, Johnston suggests, is probably because Doctor Who messes with the usual structure of heroes in an archaeological horror story. You usually have the dumb and/or bad archaeologist who releases the horror, and then a good one who saves the day. But of course, in a Doctor Who story, it’s the Doctor and his companions who fill the role of the heroic archaeologist, leaving only the bad one. We’re going to see this come up again.

You can say what you want, this scene is chilling as fuck.
You can say what you want, this scene is chilling as fuck.

Fringe archaeology and popular culture go hand in hand — Von Daniken is a big influence on Doctor Who. I guess it makes sense for a show which combines history and sci-fi.

Next up was a talk by Jean-Marcel Humbert: it was about the portrayal of mummies in childrens’ books, and it was very, very comprehensive. I don’t actually feel like I have that much to say about this one — it was very visual, with examples from dozens or probably even hundreds of books about mummies. On a purely professional level, I think what I admire most was that he wasn’t either extemporising from his slides nor clicking through them to go with his paper. He just had his presentation timed so exactly that the slide show and the reading went together.

After that, hey for the reception at the Petrie Museum. Wine cups were crushed as though they were the skulls of our enemies. I had been feeling a little unsure of myself, socially, since I’m not very good at meeting people, but with a buzz on and some presentations to talk about it was all good.


On a personal note, I was off to the leaving party of a friend, but I decided to stop in on the way at, you guessed it, Treadwell’s Books. A little more wine, some good chats, books, maybe a little occultism. Then finally to Chiswick for the remaining party.

By the end of Friday I knew I was in for an exceptional weekend: my brain was humming and my feet hurt like hell. Saturday would be more of the same.

Monstrous Antiquities: 1

Occasionally I am a little bit serious

I am presenting at a conference on November 2nd! You can read more about it here.

It’s called Monstrous Antiquities: Archaeology and the Uncanny in Popular Culture, and my presentation is on Archaeology, Memory and Identity in the Fiction of H P Lovecraft. There’s a lot of other stuff I’m excited to see, too — if you don’t look at the titles in the link above and go “ooh,” I assume you are a close personal friend who reads my blog out of niceness.

I haven’t done a conference in like … four or five years? So that will be interesting. I am really looking forward to it.

Sorry for this short post; I have an early start tomorrow. Something a little more robust then, perhaps.

Occasionally I am a little bit serious