Pope John Paul II – the second-longest serving Pope in history – remains a familiar figure even almost a decade after his death. How many, however, remember his immediate predecessor Pope John Paul I, who only served for a matter of weeks back in 1978? Born Albino Luciani, this pope was a humble, almost timid man, without any prior high-profile career in the Vatican hierarchy – a surprising choice in many ways. Catholics all over the world responded warmly to his modesty, however, and he soon acquired the nickname ‘The Smiling Pope’. At his coronation on 26 August 1978 he refused the customary papal tiara and only reluctantly agreed to be carried aloft on the traditional gestatorial chair. His reign was to last only 33 days, however; shortly after 5am on 28 September Pope John Paul I was found dead in the papal lodgings. The Vatican claimed initially that his body was found by his papal secretaries but afterwards it was revealed that he was discovered by a nun who had brought him his morning coffee. The papal doctor declared him dead of a heart attack and there was no autopsy. For any pope, let alone such a popular one, to die just a month after his election was unimaginable. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, conspiracy theories have abounded ever since. Rumours of foul play have circulated, implicating a bizarre triumvirate of Vatican conservatives, Mafia bankers and right-wing Italian Freemasons. What really happened to the Smiling Pope?
John Ruskin – art critic, philanthropist and prominent social thinker – was also, by all accounts, a very odd man. Probably the most infamous aspect of his personal life was the strange annulment of his marriage to Effie Gray and the subsequent rumours that this gave rise to concerning his sexuality. He has variously been described as a prude, asexual, homosexual and even, like his contemporary and fellow Oxford man Lewis Carroll, showing an unhealthy interest in children. None of these allegations, it must be stressed, has ever been made out, which is hardly surprising given that Ruskin was an intensely private man. For this reason it is also very difficult to determine whether there is any truth in the suggestions that Ruskin received messages from a supposed former lover, Rose La Touche, even after her death and that he once encountered the Devil himself at Brantwood. With the forthcoming release of the feature film Effie, based on Ruskin’s bizarre ‘marriage’, now seems as good a time as any to examine the strange life of John Ruskin.
One of the (many) strange things to come out of the 1960s was the bizarre rumour that, before George and John died, the first Beatle to pass away was Paul McCartney. Weird? Yes. In bad taste? Almost certainly. According to the main source, an article written by a Michigan University student in the Daily newspaper in 1969, Paul died in a fiery car crash in 1966, the only survivor of which was his then girlfriend Jane Asher. According to the rumour, as this would have finished off the Fab Four, a lookalike replacement named Billy Shears (or William Campbell) was found. With a little plastic surgery and the growth of some scar-covering facial hair – matched by George, Ringo and John for the sake of fashion consistency – The Beatles kept on rocking. The ongoing aversion of McCartney (or Shears, or Campbell, depending on whom you believe) to spontaneous photography is said to be owing to his fear that the cover-up will be rumbled. However, The Beatles could not keep the truth hidden, and their post-Paul songs and albums are riddled with hints of McCartney’s ‘death’. Let’s look at the so-called ‘evidence’.
M R James, grand master of the ghost story genre, wrote around two dozen short tales. However, of them all, perhaps none are more famous, anthologized or distinctive than “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. This story, first published in the collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was apparently written in 1903; at any rate, it was read at one of the celebrated informal meetings of the ‘Chitchat club’ at King’s College, Cambridge in that year. The odd title derives from the first line of an untitled song (1793) by Robert Burns and the story contains perhaps the most distinctive ‘ghost’ in James’ entire corpus, which may have been derived from a nightmare. In the late and apparently autobiographical tale A Vignette, James writes of a creature he has seen in a dream:
“It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.”
This iconic image has, ever since the publication of Whistle, accounted for the archetypal ‘ghost’ that springs to mind whenever the word is mentioned – a human form draped entirely in white linen. Interestingly, a similar entity is featured in James’ other tale The Uncommon Prayer-Book, which speaks of a role of white flannel that “had a kind of a face in the upper end of it”. The recurrence of such a uniquely envisaged spectre in James’ stories naturally leads one to wonder whether it was inspired by a real incident that occurred in the great man’s life.
The organisation known as the Knights Templar has presented two faces to history: one is the historians’ history, based on documents and contemporary descriptions; the other is a shadow history, which blends in a potent mixture of conspiracy theory, pulp fiction and occult knowledge. The crucial event that both versions of this history have in common is the date of 1312, when Pope Clement V officially dissolved the Templar Order in the infamous papal bull Vox in Excelso. For the historians, this was the date on which the Templars ceased to exist as an order. According to the conspiracists, however, the Templars and their secrets survived in hiding and not only that, they continue to wield great power from the shadows to this day. Needless to say, the colourful history of the Templars (both real and imagined) has been made full use of by a succession of writers of fiction – most famously in books like The Da Vinci Code and films like National Treasure. For those with more than a passing interest, however, this has only made the task of separating fact from fiction, when it comes to these knights of the shadows, all the more difficult. What do we really know about the Knights Templar?
“All art is useless” – so says the author’s 1891 preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (sometimes referred to, wrongly, as The Portrait of Dorian Gray), the only published novel by Oscar Wilde. This darkly sardonic, Faustian-themed novel very much reflects the interests and personality of its author. Ever the aesthete, Wilde was himself profoundly affected by beauty and lived and dressed in a manner which, compared to the Victorian styles and mores of the time, was regarded as flamboyant. As such, he was often publicly caricatured and the target of much moral outrage in Europe and America. His writings (including Dorian Gray, with its homoerotic themes) also brought much controversy for him. He was nonetheless part of the ever-growing movement of ‘decadents’ who advocated pacifism, social reform and libertarianism. While many vilified him, he was making his mark with style and wit and enjoyed much success with many of his plays. Wilde was also lauded by and acquainted with many influential figures of the day, including fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw, American poets Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and English author and social critic John Ruskin. In Dorian Gray the titular hero, realising that his beauty will one day fade, expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure that his portrait ages while he does not. Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, plunging him into debauched acts. The portrait serves both as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement or ageing of his form, and as a warning to all that no amount of outer beauty can make up for the darkness within.
Grigory Yefimovich Novych, the man who would come to be better known to history as the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin, is a figure shrouded in mystery, intrigue, conspiracy theories and the darkest of legends. He came to prominence as the Siberian peasant and mystic whose uncanny ability to improve the condition of Aleksey Nikolayevich, the hemophiliac heir to the Russian throne, made him an influential favourite at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. He was also reputed to be a murderer, sorcerer, libertine and chronic womanizer – his eventual moniker of Rasputin literally means ‘debauched one’ in Russian. Unsurprisingly, Rasputin made many enemies in the course of his relentless rise to power. Several attempts were made to take the life of Rasputin, culminating in the events that led to his ‘death’ in 1916. I have used quotation marks because in the opinion of many – conspiracy buffs and historians alike – the life of Rasputin may well not have ended there. Even during his lifetime, there was considerable uncertainty over Rasputin’s actions and influence, as accounts have often been based on dubious memoirs, hearsay and legend. Despite the fact that Rasputin’s body was discovered after he was killed by conspirators, rumours persist to this day that his death was faked and that somehow, bizarrely, the Mad Monk may have survived his apparent execution.
In the field of supernatural fiction, it is fair to say no author casts a longer shadow than M R James. It is arguable, however, that no author has come closer to inheriting the mantle of the great James than ghost story writer Alan Noel Latimer Munby (1913-74). The son of an architect, he was, like James, educated at King’s College, Cambridge. It was here that his fascination with ancient books began, and he later became librarian of the college. Munby also became a leading figure in the antiquarian book trade and for many years was associated with the legendary book dealer, Bernard Quaritch. He wrote several bibliographical studies and a number of his short stories combine his interest in books and the supernatural, as well as being written in an elegant and scholarly style reminiscent of his role model, James. Curiously, however, Munby’s only collection of ghost stories, The Alabaster Hand, published in 1949, was largely written to pass the time away while he was a German POW at Eichstatt in Upper Franconia from 1943-45. Whilst a prisoner of war camp would not, perhaps, ordinarily be thought conducive surroundings for the creation of a classic collection of ghost stories, The Alabaster Hand is strong evidence of the way in which creativity must have helped some who found themselves in this position to preserve their sanity.
The 7th Earl of Lucan, Richard John Bingham, better known as Lord Lucan, is one of the most infamous fugitives in British criminal history. Born in the 1930s, he was a charismatic man with expensive tastes: he raced power boats and, like James Bond, drove an Aston Martin. In 1963 he married Veronica Duncan, who bore him three children, and for a time his life seemed perfect. Then, at the start of the 1970s, Lucan’s marriage collapsed, he moved out of the family home and a bitter custody battle with his wife over the children ensued. This dispute seemed to change Lucan fundamentally – he spent most of the money he had on drink and gambling, became obsessed with regaining his children and began to spy on his family. Things came to a head in 1974 when the Lucans’ nanny was found brutally bludgeoned to death, apparently by Lord Lucan. Lady Lucan, who had also been present during the attack, indicated that her estranged husband was the murderer. Almost immediately, one of the largest manhunts ever organised in Britain began – one that to this day has still not resulted in an arrest. The last confirmed sighting of Lord Lucan was a few days after the body of the nanny was discovered, when he left a friend’s house in Uckfield, Sussex, never to be seen again. Since then, there have been almost as many alleged sightings of Lord Lucan as there have been of Elvis, Bigfoot or Jimmy Hoffa. Lucan’s true fate remains a fascinating mystery for the British public. Hundreds of reports of his presence in various countries around the world have been made following his initial disappearance, although none have been substantiated. Despite a police investigation and huge press interest, Lucan remains missing (presumed dead?).
Britain is a country dotted with mysterious stone circles, a legacy either of its original inhabitants, fairies or aliens (depending on whom you believe). Despite intense speculation over the years, to this day no one really knows for certain what function was originally served by the standing stones at Salisbury, Avebury or any number of other sacred sites. Many of the most intriguing theories have in fact been put forward, not by scientists or historians, but by creators of film and fiction. One television series which particularly springs to mind whenever anyone mentions stone circles to me is the profoundly disturbing, yet startlingly original, Children of the Stones. Broadcast in 1976-77, this one-off serial follows astrophysicist Adam Brake and his young son Matthew after they arrive in the small village of Milbury, which is built in the midst of a megalithic stone circle. Their terrifying experiences in Milbury are recounted in seven atmospheric episodes which culminate in a chilling finale. A series which has stood the test of time, I’ve never seen anything like Children of the Stones since. Even though it was nominally created for children, there is very little that is childish about the serial, either in terms of plot, acting, script or mood. In fact Children of the Stones is frequently cited by those who remember it as one of the scariest things they ever saw as children – even the director was surprised on seeing the script that it was intended to be broadcast at teatime! This is definitely one to watch with the lights switched on…