If I hadn’t become a crime writer, I think it most likely I would have written horror or science fiction. I certainly did when I was a teenager; then, after many years of poetry, I turned to crime. While Poe’s stories of “ratiocination” featuring Auguste Dupin never really thrilled me (even back then I just couldn’t believe in that OurangOutang!), his tales of mystery and imagination enthralled me from the start. And I came to them first through the films of Roger Corman, many of them scripted by the excellent Richard Matheson.
In England in the early 1960s there were three ratings for films: U, A, and X. The first was general admission, for an A film you had to be accompanied by an adult, and you had to be over sixteen to see an X film. X ratings weren’t reserved for films about sex and violence but were applied to just about every exciting horror and science fiction film that came out in that golden age-from The Blob to Psycho. For a twelve-year-old fan, the pickings were pretty slim. You might get something decent with an A rating, which meant that you had to hang around outside the cinema and ask some adult stranger to take you in-something I’m sure would be inconceivable in this day and age. But we did it and survived.
Luckily, though, there was one local fleapit, incredibly named the Palace, where the old woman in the ticket booth didn’t really care how old you were. At twelve or thirteen, I was tall enough that I could pass for sixteen there, or so I thought. At any rate, she took my money and let me in without a second glance. I can still recall the sense of excitement and anticipation I felt before the lush red velvet curtains parted. I was doing something I shouldn’t be doing, seeing something forbidden-at least to kids my age-and I had no idea what wonders to expect. My previous horror and science fiction experiences had included A for Andromeda and Quatermass and the Pit on television, and the latter had scared the living daylights out of me. Now here I was, alone in a dark cinema, waiting for the ultimate experience in terror-in living color on a large screen-The Pit and the Pendulum. No wonder my stomach clenched as I lit a Woodbine and slunk down in my seat.
When the curtains opened, the swirl of colors was much like that of light shows I was to see later in the decade, but at the time, combined with a quirky, contemporary score, it was just enough to set the juices flowing. This was going to be weird. Then came the impossible castle on its hill, surrounded by a ring of mist, and the coach driver who would only take his passenger so far. (Quickly developing a taste for these horror films, I also devoured everything Hammer produced around the same time and got used to seeing such openings over and over again!) But it wasn’t so much the castle and the cobwebs and the dungeon and the strange colors and the distortion used in flashbacks and dream sequences that made me squirm in my seat. Poe, I discovered through Corman, was a master of morbid psychology, master of the language of grief and loss and how they could lead a man (usually Vincent Price) to madness beyond the grave.
The Pit and the Pendulum at the Palace
Of course, in retrospect, it’s hard to say how much I understood at the time. Probably the whole element of adultery that underpins the tale was lost on me, though the hints of illicit sex and debauchery certainly weren’t-heaving cleavage was as much a feature of the Corman films as it was with Hammer-and the way Elizabeth expresses her fascination with the torture chamber, rushing around feverishly, touching the implements with a kind of sexual longing, was both disturbing and exciting. I knew about the Spanish Inquisition (though this was several years before it was immortalized by Monty Python) and its tortures-the Iron Maiden, the rack, and the rest- but perhaps the adult relationships were somewhat lost on me.
Certainly there are moments of pure shock-the opening of the stone tomb to reveal the skeleton of a woman who had obviously died trying to claw her way out, the reappearance of Elizabeth in the flesh, the revelation of the “ultimate torture device” itself, and the heavy swishing sound it made as it got faster and faster. (Apparently, Corman cut every other frame to get this effect.) But mostly it was atmosphere, the unspoken, the hint of terrible mysteries beyond the grave, a world where people are condemned to relive terrible acts or suffer the ancient curses of their ancestors, and the realm of the opium dream/nightmare that Corman fashioned from Poe’s story. And of course, you couldn’t go home after seeing any of these films without being absolutely terrified of being buried alive.
No doubt I slept uneasily that night, but the next day I went out and bought Tales of Mystery and Imagination. In no time I was immersed in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Berenice” (the teeth, my God, the teeth!), and “The Cask of Amontillado” and probably produced my own pale imitations in the notebooks I filled with drivel in those days. It also didn’t take me long to discover that Corman’s movie had little to do with the actual plot of Poe’s story, though he excelled in re-creating the atmosphere of Poe’s work. In later life I studied Poe along with Melville when I was doing my Ph.D. in English literature, and his work has since given me hours of pleasure (and many sleepless nights).
And I went back to the Palace. I went to see The House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tomb of Ligeia, Tales of Terror, and The Premature Burial. I enjoyed them all, though I don’t think any had quite the same impact as the first one I saw-The Pit and the Pendulum.