Welcome, as always, dear readers.
Fads are really weird things, coming and going with little, if any, explanation.
Early in the 20th century, when the invention of the modern elevator, in the early 1890s,
allowed for taller and taller buildings to be erected,
there suddenly appeared a craze for climbing them. The most famous of these climbers, who used nothing but his climbing skill and his fingers and toes, was Harry H. Gardiner (1871-1933?), called “the Human Fly”.
During the first few decades of the twentieth century, he put his skills to a number of such places, including this imposing structure, the Park Row Building in New York City, 26 stories, plus two four-story towers at the front corners, which he scaled in 1918.
(There’s a really interesting story about the construction of this building at this LINK: https://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-1899-park-row-bldg-no-15-park-row.html )
Such crazy stunts soon produced a comedy, one of my favorite silent comedies, Harold Lloyd’s (1893-1971)
Safety Last (1923)
In this film, Lloyd is a young man from Great Bend, Kansas, who seeks his fortune in The Big City. When that doesn’t work out as he would wish, he decides to imitate the Human Fly by climbing a 12-story building, which produced one of the most famous images from early comedy—
The plot is much more complicated, but, lucky for us, a first-class print of the film is available at the wonderful Internet Archive to see at: https://archive.org/details/SafetyLastHaroldLloyd1923.FullMovieexcellentQuality
You may be wondering, at this point, where this posting is leading. Will it take us off a cliff, making it a literal cliff-hanger?
I’m about to be teaching Dracula again, a novel so popular that it has never been out of print since its original publication in 1897.
Each time I teach something for the second and more times, I’m always surprised that something new will always pop out. It may come from a student question or remark, or it can just appear, as it did this time.
If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s set mainly in Transylvania and England in the 1890s and begins with the journey of a law clerk, Jonathan Harker, to visit one of his employer’s clients, a count who lives at the far eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It is a strange trip and made even stranger when Harker arrives at a castle
(This is Bran Castle, in Romania, and has been suggested as an inspiration for Dracula’s castle.)
and meets the owner, who is a fluent English-speaker with a large library of English books. He also shows no reflection in mirrors, and, as Harker soon learns, has another peculiarity, as well:
“I looked out over the beautiful expanse, bathed in soft yellow moonlight till it was almost as light as day. In the soft light the distant hills became melted, and the shadows in the valleys and gorges of velvety blackness. The mere beauty seemed to cheer me; there was peace and comfort in every breath I drew. As I leaned from the window my eye was caught by something moving a storey below me, and somewhat to my left, where I imagined, from the order of the rooms, that the windows of the Count’s own room would look out. The window at which I stood was tall and deep, stone-mullioned, and though weatherworn, was still complete; but it was evidently many a day since the case had been there. I drew back behind the stonework, and looked carefully out.
What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.
What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear—in awful fear—and there is no escape for me; I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of….”
It’s interesting that, although Harker likens the descent of the Count to a lizard,
he also likens the movement of his cloak to wings,
suggesting another creature, and one into which Dracula turns more than once later in the novel.
But this scene, from Stoker’s novel, suddenly made a new connection for me. Frodo and Sam have been struggling through the rugged terrain of the Emyn Muil,
but, pausing in their struggles, they see behind them:
“Down the face of a precipice, sheer and almost smooth it seemed in the pale moonlight, a small black shape was moving with its thin limbs splayed out. Maybe its soft clinging hands and toes were finding crevices and holds that no hobbit could ever have seen or used, but it looked as if it was just creeping down on sticky pads, like some large prowling thing of insect-kind. And it was coming down head first, as if it was smelling its way. Now and again it lifted its head slowly, turning it right back on its long, skinny neck, and the hobbits caught a glimpse of two small pale gleaming lights, its eyes that blinked at the moon for a moment and then were quickly lidded again.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 1, “The Taming of Smeagol”)
Tolkien may liken Gollum to “some large prowling thing of insect-kind”, but Gollum’s manner of descent sounds so much like that of the terrifying Count that it has made me wonder: did JRRT once read Dracula? And should Gollum, then, be more batlike than I, at least, have imagined?
Thanks, for reading, as ever,
Maintain your sense of balance,
And know that, as always, there’s