"When I drew nigh to the nameless city I knew it was accursed!"
- H.P. Lovecraft
They say the devil makes work for idle hands and by the mid-nineties mine were more idle than they should have been. The music video work dried up as the grungy eighties were consigned to the toxic waste drum of history along with midnight movies, long hair, leather and psychedelic drugs; swept away by a rising tide of amphetamines, tracksuit tops and consumer-friendly new Labour bling. River City was getting stale and when Channel Four Television's religion department offered me a suitable mission, I jumped at the chance without the slightest comprehension of where the chain of events would ultimately lead me.
Channel Four had recently broadcast a hit show entitled The Real Jurassic Park, concerning efforts to extract dinosaur DNA from amber and were looking at a potential follow-up, The Real Raiders of the Lost Ark, for a similar child-friendly early evening slot. There is no point recapitulating the details of the Spielberg film here. In essence, Lawrence Kasdan's script, a homage to Saturday matinees of yesteryear, makes good use of two very separate strands of popular mythology: the survival of an ancient, supernatural or religious relic into the modern day and the continuing web of rumours and dangerous fallacies surrounding the very real activities of the Ahnenerbe SS and the archeological work conducted by their Race and Settlement Department under the command of deranged Brigadefuhrer Karl Maria Wiligut-Weisthor.
There is no evidence to suggest Adolf Hitler had the slightest interest in occultism, or that Weisthor or any other member of the Nazi regime ever actively pursued the ark of the Covenant, or the equally fabulous 'Spear of Destiny', linked to the developing post-war mythos by the fabrications of 'pseudo-historian' Trevor Ravenscroft. While these legends may have a symbolic value central to the Judeo-Christian myth, they have little relevance to the aggressive brand of Aryan neo-paganism adhered to by Weisthor and his sinister comrades.
The Ethiopian Jews claim to this day to have the Ark under lock and key in Axum, but in truth there is almost no archeological evidence to suggest that the Temple of Solomon itself existed outside popular folklore, let alone its contents. Even if the Ark, the carrying case supposed to hold the ten commandments, the literal word of God brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai, or something like it had existed, its wooden frame would surely have turned to dust over the long millenia, but bolstered by fool's courage and an open tab to cover my costs, I gamely set out to pick up the trail.
The temple of Solomon is believed to have been destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman general Titus and its treasures borne back to the eternal city to swell the coffers of his father, the Emperor Vespasian. A triumphal arch in Rome records the arrival of the Ark along with the other relics, the sacred Menora and the Cup of Abraham, a chalice carved by master Afghan craftsmen to consecrate the temple the prophet built in Ur of the Chaldees and identified by some as the mythic Holy Grail of medieval chivalry.
Rome was itself looted in 410 AD by the Visigoths under their great king Alaric, who in turn is said to have carried the treasure back to his capital, the lost city of Rhedae, whose ruins apparently lay beneath the streets of the tiny Pyrenean town of Rennes le Chateau, the confluence point of all great 20th century conspiracy theories.
Author Gerard de Sede has set the ball rolling with the publication of two almost identical accounts of the affair, L'or de Rennes (The Gold of Rennes) and Le Tresor Maudit de Rennes le Chateau (The Cursed Treasure of Rennes Le Chateau) (both 1967), which had in turn formed the basis of a hit BBC documentary The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) and the accompanying international bestseller authored by its principal researchers Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. Taking off from the known facts of the case Holy Blood unpacks a bizarre and highly unlikely conspiracy theory predicated on the notion that Christ married Mary Magdalene and had issue, a sacred bloodline that survives to this day protected by a typically shadowy secret society known as the Priory of Sion, dedicated to the preservation of the 'Sang Real', or royal blood, that the 'Sangraal' or Holy Grail was said to represent, a lineage notoriously said to include such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and the filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau.
The documentary argues that Saunier uncovered proof of this bloodline and was paid to keep his silence by the Priory and its cohorts. It is well known that the three young researchers were deliberately mislead by a series of forged documents lodged in the Bibliotheque Nationale by Pierre Plantard, a right-wing synarchist, connected to an obscure society dedicated to the creation of a United States of Europe named the Ordre Alpha-Galates and who seems to have fabricated the papertrail in order to imply that he was the descendent of the son of God as well as rightful heir to the throne of France.
Whether Plantard had genuine delusions of grandeur or if it was simply a surrealist joke that got out of hand is hard to tell, but something in the iconoclasm of the conceit seemed to strike a chord with the public. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail spawned a slew of sequels and spin offs, teasing out this slender premise to ever more ridiculous extremes including The Messianic Legacy, the original trio's official follow-up, and The Tomb of God (Richard Andrews and Paul Schellenberger, 1996), which by now argued that Saunier not only discovered proof of Christ's lineage, but that the church concealed the literal body of Christ itself (presumably along with the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail).
Deranged surveyor Donald Wood took the whole thing to a different level with Genisis and its equally bizarre sequel Geneset, which introduced the rather more radical notion that Saunier had stumbled upon some sort of space-time portal to another world, linking Rennes to the then-current UFO craze and arguing that clues hidden in the natural proportions and 'sacred geometry' of the surrounding landscape indicated not only the intervention of extraterrestrial (or fourth dimensional) beings, but that mankind itself was the product of alien (essentially Lovecraftian) Gods mucking about with recombinant DNA.
Saucer cults flocked to the area from the late seventies onwards, setting up 24 hour 'sky watches' from the surrounding hills, laying out UFO-friendly pictograms in the scrub and formulating elaborate 'landing protocols' in the hope that someone might stop by to pick them up. This, however, never happened and by the close of the century the number of reported 'sightings' had thinned to a trickle. The 'space-time portal' idea stuck around however, recycled by Henry Lincoln's opportunistic and all but incomprehensible entry The Holy Place, the 'Rennes Pentagram' first documented by Woods providing the jumping off spot for any number of geomancers and sacred cartographers drawn by the admittedly freaky topography.
There is an enduring folkloric belief that if you zero the clock on your mileage before driving the points of the pentagram, you will find it covers a grand total of 666km. Apparently at some point the Devil went metric. The prehistoric standing stones that dot the area and the natural geological formations do seem to be aligned with unaccountable precision (something hinted at by Boudet in his original ur-text La Vraie Langue Celtique or The Cromlechs of Rennes le Bains), but by the mid-nineties the matter of Saunier and what lay beneath the church itself seemed to have been largely forgotten.
Hardly surprising since there were no bars, restaurants, hotels or other inducements to welcome outsiders and only one sign in the world, at the very base of the plateau itself, that bears the village's name.
Although a short hop from Cannes and the beaches of the Cote d'Azur, Rennes might as well be living in another world. If you slip a copy of Damien: Omen II into your CD player as you pull out of the rental lot at Carcassonne airport you should, if you crank the volume a li'l, reach the outer edge of the pentagram by approximately track six ('Fallen Temple'). South of Carcassonne, the trees press slowly closer, branches meeting over the narrowing blacktop as you follow the winding course of the Aude towards its headwaters.
It is only when you pass that one signpost and start up the plateau itself that the rustic setting begins to take on a more sinister, otherworldly property. Just what exactly is the matter with Rennes is hard to finger immediately. It's narrow streets are as quiet as any other Merdianal backwater, but that odd sensation of being watched never quite leaves you and there is perhaps something a little too furtive in the manner of the locals to quite set the visitor's mind at ease.
By track ten on a good day you should be parked up beside the Tour Magdala and on a clear day in Rennes you can see, if not forever, then as near as dammit, the smudgy blue foot hills rolling away and away on all sides, which is why the visi-goths chose it as their capital in the first place. The more jarring details don't become apparent until you've paused long enough to catch your breath. The weird sun dial / clock on the tower above the parking lot that never seems to tell any recognizable earthly time, the big, white Pyrenean mountain dog that looks more like a wolf loitering in the shade of the gothic belvedere, the pentagrams on the manhole covers and the only store in town is of course a bookshop rather than a grocers, whose sign reads 'Over 666 titles in stock'. By the time you catch sight of the church and those famous words 'Terrible is this place' above it's door, it is difficult for even the most unobservant pilgrim not to conclude that there is something, well, a li'l wrong with Rennes.
At that time, being the early nineties, Noel Corbu's successor, Henri Buthion, had only recently disappeared, leaving the Villa Bethany in disarray. Buthion's attempts to continue the obsessive tunnelling begun by his predecessor and his later recourse to dynamite to try and break through to the vaults below had destabilized the presbytery and cracked the chapel's starry dome. The domain lay abandoned, gardens and greenhouses neglected and overgrown and in the noontide silence of Saunier's garden I reflected on Poe's words from The Fall of the House of Usher:
"I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all."
Although I had come to the Pyrenees with the intention of channelling the spirit of Indiana Jones, it was another cinematic tradition that obtained. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Argento's 'Three Mothers' trilogy or indeed the wider Italian gothic horror tradition would have been struck at once by the odd familiarity of Saunier's art-deco diabolism. The fading velvet wallpaper would have been right at home in the 'Markos Tanz Akadamie' and the primary coloured shards of glass that still clung to the frame of the abandoned greenhouse put me in mind of an earlier master, Argento's mentor, the great Mario Bava.
I, Vampiri/ The Devil's Commandment (1956) was probably the first identifiable Italian horror film and the source from which all others flow. The original director, Riccardo Freda, a former member of the Italian Board of Film Censors, apparently decided to emulate the commercially successful American imports by producing a horror film of his own. When he lost interest in the project the young Bava, who had been recruited to work on the special effects, took over the production and made it his own. Bava's dad had apparently manufactured lifelike mannequins for window displays and the director's continuing necrophilic tendency to objectify his leads as if they were living dolls contributes a uniquely creepy frisson to his more powerful works.
After salvaging a second Mexican-bound Lovecraft pastiche Caltiki - The Immortal Monster (1959) begun by his mentor, Riccardo Freda, the young Bava embarked on an extraordinary solo career with Black Sunday (1960) which was loosely inspired by Gogol's VIY, while The Evil Eye (1962) is arguably the first identifiable giallo, a genre Bava continued to hone in Blood and Black Lace (1964), in which a masked assassin cuts a cathartic swathe through an array of mannequin-like fashion models setting the template for modern 'stalk and slash' in the process.
Boris Karloff turns in one of his best performances in Black Sabbath (1963), but apparently caught the cold that killed him in the process of completing the final shot subsequently shorn from American release prints. Christopher Lee got nasty in The Whip and the Body, aka The Whip and the Flesh, aka What? (1963), while Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966) aka Curse of the Dead (UK) aka Curse of the Living Dead (US) aka The Dead Eyes of Dr. Dracula (Germany) may well be the genre's masterpiece. The plot (concerning a cursed aristocratic family at the centre of a series of supernaturally motivated murders) merely serves as an excuse to crank up the dry ice, stirring the frozen archetypes into a vortice of winding alleyways and Kafkaesque dreamscapes exemplified in a sequence where the protagonist literally pursues himself through a series of identical chambers, slowly but surely gaining ground only to find he has typically gained nothing at all.
If there was one title that reminded me most of Rennes and its demented denizens, it was Bava's 1972 funeral fest Lisa and the Devil aka The Devil and the Dead, that had caught me unaware one Hallow'een under the influence of a particularly good crop of magic mushrooms and simply knocked me for six. To say it tickled my funny bone would be putting it mildly. I couldn't get up off the floor and every time I tried another off kilter moment or effortless non-sequeter would knock me straight back on my ass again. Elke Sommer plays a dazed blonde, who strays from a tour group viewing a fresco showing the devil carrying away the dead to meander through a string of encounters with a ghostly aristocratic family and their daemonic servant, Leandro, played with impish relish by Telly Savalas, complete with lollipop, kid gloves and a fetching range of quasi-Masonic accessories.
The entire film seems unstuck in time and space with names, identities and relationships fluctuating alarmingly ( a special mention to Alida Valli, whose deranged matriarch is played as blind in some scenes, while plainly sighted in others ) but as all are apparently dead or damned to begin with, this seems quite in keeping with the nightmare logic of the plot. Pure essence of Rennes. How else could I put it? You'd have to be there.
At times it appears the cast are simply making it up as they go along and one can only imagine the director's imperfect grasp of English allowed some of the weirdest dialogue in cinema history, including mangled chunks of Jim Morrison’s lyrics and even the Rice Crispies jingle to find its way into the script. The director's tendency to portray human beings as living dolls reaches it's lunatic apogee in one of the most overblown acts of sustained necrophilia ever inflincted on the viewing public. Bracing stuff. Too bracing for the producers, who cut the film by nearly half it's length and shot additional scenes involving a bewildered exorcist played by Robert Alda, who strives to make sense of the diabolic shambles released in the US as House of Exorcism and credited to fictional director 'Micky Lion'. The original, while admittedly an acquired taste, remains unsurpassed in all it's baffling glory.
Although at times quite evidently off his trolley, Bava's work innovated many of the stylistic conventions 'borrowed' by American franchises such as Friday the 13th and Scream as well as defining the genre in which his successors, Dario Argento and the late, lamented Lucio Fulci were to distinguish themselves. Daria Nicolodi starred in Bava's last completed work as a director, Shock (1977), aka Shock Transfer Suspense Hypnos, and his final credit was as special effects creator of il maestro's Inferno (1980).
Dario returned the favour by producing Mario Bava's son Lamberto's early work, 'DEMONS' (1985) and its trashy, throw-away sequel, in which a horror film invades the life of the audience members before bringing about some form of daemonic apocalypse.
To some extent, Lucio Fulci's notorious gothic trilogy City of the Living Dead (1980), aka The Gates of Hell, The Beyond (1981) aka Seven Doors of Death (US), aka The Seven Doors of Hell, aka Eibon, Ghost Town of the Living Dead (Germany) and The House by the Cemetery (1981) could be seen as an excremental Freudian reposte to Argento's essentially Jungian work, a maggot-ridden return of the repressed replete in the latter entry, with a grotesque flesh-eating thing in the basement named 'Freudstein', who speaks in a sublimely creepy child-like whimper. Apart from the by now habitual setting of a 'large house with many rooms' and the inevitable flooded basement, Fulci's works display a Bavaesque disregard for conventional logic and share a common mythology courtesy of screenwriter Dardano Sachetti, who also contributed to the Amityville cycle. The lunatic events in The Beyond from the swarm of face-eating spiders in the library to the blind girl ravaged by her own seeing-eye dog are justified by the simple, catch all expedient that "this house, this whole town is built over one of the seven dreaded gateways of evil!" Which brings us neatly back to Rennes.
By the end of the 20th century, years of speculation had left the natives riven, brother divided against brother, any fragile sense of community that might have existed overwhelmed by an influx of treasure hunters, occultists, cranks and conspirators. As the various 'revelations' and increasingly far-fetched theories as to what lay beneath the church tended to be mutually exclusive, it followed that Rennes itself remained something of a black spot in consensus reality, where no two people seemed to agree as to what the hell was really happening.
President Mitterand had visited the church in person a few years previously, before returning to Paris to enable a law that made the use of metal detectors and ultra-sound equipment illegal in the area, thus forestalling an alleged bid by the Vatican to conduct a scan of the plateau, as well as slowing the efforts of the various human moles and Indiana Jones-wannabes who continued to tunnel incessantly through the crumbling bedrock.
The basic 'Rennes story', the essential facts and the level you received them on, was by the early nineties very much determined by who you spoke to first or were seen with in public. Such was the degree of mistrust and creeping paranoia in the hamlet that after generations of internecine rivalry an unspoken protocol dictated that the moment a newcomer was spotted conniving with another resident or perceived to be aligned with whatever group or society they represented, all other doors were closed to them making it hard to penetrate more than one layer of the onion at a time without inordinate subterfuge and a deep knowledge of local politics. Hence it was to my good fortune as a 'Rennes virgin', blissfully unaware of all this gothic game playing, that the very first individual I spoke to on arrival in the village turned out to be the best possible person I could have chosen when it came to unpacking the zone's multifold mysteries over the months and years that followed.
Celia Brooke was a striking-looking redhead with soaring cheekbones and patient, long-suffering blue green eyes as deep as the rock pools in the River of Colours itself. At that time the church was still closed to the public, in desperate need of repair and Celia was helping out in the small museum connected to the disused rectory. I sought her out, taking her to be the curator and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was not only English but seemed to take an immediate shine to me. I don't know why she trusted me the way she did rather than instantly dismissing me as another treasure hunter and the all round esoteric opportunist that I was. Maybe she was just bored that day and grateful for the chance to shoot the breeze with someone from the outside world. She was certainly a big fish in a very small pond but what a weird and 'wonder full' pond it was!
Celia was the granddaughter of H.H. The Dayang Muda of Sarawak, Gladys Brooke, who had been evicted from the family's island fiefdom by the Japanese and cast adrift in post-war London society. Before becoming guardian of Sauniere's domain Celia had rehearsed her role as gatekeeper, first as a hat check girl in London's Groucho Club, then as first secretary to the Rolling Stones fan club, acting as Mick Jagger's official signature and autographing thousands of photographs on his behalf, a legal wrinkle that had continued to keep her in pocket for many years.
Celia had flirted with various belief systems and their attendant gurus over the years and had sojourned in Afghanistan and Gilgit in the early seventies before marrying the grandson of Sufi master musician Hazrat Inayat Khan and moving to the south, where they had purchased a tract of land on a hilltop overlooking the Rennes plateau following a vision described to them by aging Nazi seer Joseph Geibel, who had insisted the young heir to the throne of Sarawak would one day 'find treasure there'. Sadly, Celia's marriage had gone south too although she continued to live alone on the hilltop with her daughter Grace in 'La Metairie Blanche', the extraordinary white house she had constructed over the years with her own hands and the help of the locals.
Walking in the woods near 'La Metairie' in the mid-eighties Celia had found an ancient gold coin washed free by the spring rains. Following the run off she dug slowly back into the mulch to unearth a hoard of Carolingian coins just as Geibel had foretold, thus becoming one of the only people to have ever found actual treasure in Rennes. By the early nineties most of the hoard had been smuggled out of the country, but at least three of the coins can be seen in the local museum to this very day.
Celia had begun to spend more time in the village and had started helping out in the abandoned domain, where the verger and official grave digger, Marcel Captier, had taken her under his protective wing. Marcel was of course the grandson of Saunier's bellringer, the man who had uncovered the 'Rennes documents' in the first place, and wore on a steel ring on his belt the 'sixty-eight keys to Rennes le Chateau', which he would deliberately rattle from time to time as he showed me around the dilapidated estate as if to remind me of the dreadful responsibilities incumbent in his dynastic role of 'keeper'. The pressure weighed all too heavily on his remaining family and by the early nineties had driven a wedge between him and his brother, Antoine, who had married Claire Corbu and contested him for control of the domain.
"Twenty-two steps", muttered Marcel, tapping the tip of his shoe numinously against the topmost flight as we emerged onto the roof of the Tour Magdala, his eyes taking in the familiar panorama, the vista of surrounding hilltops that defined the limits of his strange, intensely private world. Everything in Rennes seemed to be precisely patterned, aligned and innumerated according to some elusive, diabolic logic, which, like a bad acid trip, kept threatening to make some kind of sense without ever quite dropping the other shoe.
A flight of steps exists on the hillside several hundred metres beneath the Tour Magdala and with recourse to a laser or theodolite, a straight line can be drawn through the tower's westward facing window (modelled on the 'arrow slits' found in the ruined 12th century castles that dot the area) using the second set of steps as if they were the sites at the tip of a gun barrel. If the line is continued across the valley below, it clearly indicates the mouth of a cave on the far side of the River of Colours, one grotto amongst many in an area honeycombed with similar limestone formations.
Knowledge is power and as any secret society worth its salt knows you can't just give away a halfway decent secret but you can't hold it back forever either, otherwise the rubes get bored and drift away. Instead to maintain ones precarious position in the invisible hierarchy, the secret needs to be trailed every so often, just enough to keep the average sucker/initiate hooked, a practise the denizens of Rennes had perfected to a fine art. A kind of esoteric flirting, stonewalling and gliding around direct questions while casually dropping hints of a larger truth but giving away only enough trivia to keep their marks coming back for more. It is the job of an impartial investigator to weigh the evidence accordingly and decide for themselves who, if anyone, really holds the key.
I met Jean-Pierre Montes, a self-proclaimed expert in 'secret societies', who spoke at length about the Priory of Sion and looking me in the eye when he saw I was in danger of nodding off tossed in the immortal remark: "Hah! If you could only learn who held the patent on the calorimeter, then you would know the true identity of Fulcanelli, the master alchemist!" Not that he had mentioned the 'F' word previously either. It just popped in from nowhere to make certain he kept my attention and I remember trying very hard not to crack up laughing there and then. Harder still to keep a straight face with the grizzled Jean de Rigney, who lived alone in his old wooden farmhouse at the source of the 'Salz', the saline river that emerged from the ancient salt mines in the woods east of Sougraigne. De Rigney believed that there was an underground UFO base beneath his property and had made countless recordings of the aliens by connecting microphones to his floorboards and was keen to play us his weird tapes filled with hissing, sputtering semi-human voices right out of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness. I rationalized it as a variant on common or garden electronic voice phenomena (E.V.P.) and tried not to think about it, but it was all too easy to imagine Lovecraft's Old Ones winging their way over those domed, densely wooded hills. Later I took samples of river water from the stream behind the farm house, which we found to be mildly radioactive, possibly a factor in the legendary curative properties of the springs at Rennes le Bains.
I met Elizabeth van Buren, great-great-granddaughter of the eighth American president, who had recently printed a commentary entitled The Overture of the Invisible, which she claimed was an esoteric unveiling of Fulcanelli's third 'lost' manuscript Finis Gloraie Mundi, and who seemed to honestly believe that the immortal Count Sainte Germaine and several other players in the mystery were in fact good ol' fashioned vampires after all. She had issues with extraterrestrials too, this being all the rage back then and had decoded all the heavenly constellations hidden in the local ordinance survey map, what she called the 'Rennes Zodiac'.
Elizabeth had recently been found weeping and crawling on all fours in the bottom of a neighbouring garden having apparently saved the world by driving a metal stake into the 'Achilles' heel of the Great Bear', an emotionally cathartic act of earth acupuncture. There were rumours she had suffered a nervous breakdown but rather than bow out quietly, she had come back strong, deciding that she was in fact the reincarnation of Joan of Arc and showing up on the anniversary of Sauniere's death (known locally as 'Blue Apple Day' for reasons I will return to later), dressed in full armour to demand admittance to the church and the vaults below. Celia had managed to get her sword away from her and finessed the situation admirably, showing good humour in the face of the yearly influx of shadowy adherents who congregate annually in the chapel to mark this weirdest of anniversaries when the morning sun shines through the chapel windows in such a manner as to create an almost three-dimensional holograph. Unfortunately, it looks too much like a Monet painting to make any real sense like everything else in Rennes but it's mighty pretty whatever the hell it is.
At least Elizabeth had the breeding and deep pockets to give her fancies full flight and somehow stay at large, buying and restoring the Visi-Goth tower at the base of the plateau and planting thousands of roses in the shape of a heart that could only be seen from the air as a signal to her space brothers. Most of the flowers died within weeks in the thin soil despite Celia's efforts to water them, although other weeds had taken route in the towers shadow that helped put proceedings in their proper perspective.
A sign on the road into the valley proclaimed 'F***K' in bold, block capitals and a few feet further back from the trail I came across a vast waist-high field of marijuana plants in the midst of which stood a single pole bearing a box marked 'aide humanitaire' - a highly egalitarian 'take as much as you need and leave what you see fit' deal that suited me to a tee. I suspect this had something to do with a local wildman named Danielle, who lived in wheeless bus partly buried in the hillside along with his sunstruck girlfriend and about a hundred badly diseased cats. Danielle looked just like Charlie Manson, only shorter, and spoke like Charlie too, but in French, which leant an additional opacity to his crypto-astrological banter. His main source of revenue was drawing treasure maps, which he massproduced in their hundreds and sold at the roadside to curious tourists in between decorating the trees with the countless tiny swastikas he made from broken mirrors, bones and barbie-doll legs.
Granted, it helps to get a certain perspective on proceedings and getting out into the boonies did just that. It was only when I surveyed the area by horse or took those long walks with Marcel and his huge white Pyrenean mountain dog, Dagobert, that I began to notice the extent of the underlying earthworks, the outlines of ancient roads, houses and crumbling dry stone walls reminiscent of the Zimbabwe ruins and possibly as old if not older, running for mile upon mile beneath the scrub, the remains of Rhedae, the capital of the Visi-Goths presumably, although it appeared distinctly Lovecraftian at first glance.
Marcel professed disinterest in the treasure and deflected direct discussion of the church by insisting that the real problem with Rennes was that the area was infested with 'little people' who played tricks with people's minds, pointing out the limestone geomorphology and the labyrinthine tunnels both natural and manmade that honeycombed the plateau. He was possessed of considerable artistic talent and insisted that one day he would draw a comic book version that would explain everything. Until then the world would just have to be patient.
To some extent he seemed like the sanest man in the village and between him and Celia, he quietly did everything that needed doing. He picked up after the tourists, emptied the bins in the parking lot, cleaned the public toilets, changed the flowers on the altar, dug the graves, kept the treasure hunters from digging them back up again and stopped the Vatican from getting into the church and conducting their long-mooted ultra-sound scan of the cavity ("It was horrible, horrible", muttered Celia under her breath. "Those little Italian men in their little white gloves crawling all over everything."). All in a day's work in Rennes.
The barrage of data was by now becoming so formidable I had taken to carrying a dictaphone and noting down everything I saw or heard in the manner of a forensic pathologist, hoping to sift through the material at a later date when I had the insight to be able to separate the essential from the trivial.
The following are transcripts from surviving tapes:
TRANSCRIPTS FROM THE ZONE
THE CAVES - 9.34 am October 13th 1992
R.S.: "Hey sister, it's approximately 9.34 am. Tailing Celia and Marcel on a road beneath the plateau. Just turned left off the dirt track and are doubling back towards the River of Colours, the Rousseau de Coleur, from which the village draws its water supply, so named because of the red mud. Area looks as if it has been terraced with extreme care. Now passing a rock marked with a circle, a cross and a triangle in white. No apparent explanation. Heading towards the second flight of steps built by Reverend Sauniere..."
Prolonged silence. Unintelligible whispering.
THE CAVES - 10.32 am October 13th 1992
R.S.: "10.32 local time. Now in the largest chamber of the cave immediately opposite the tower. It's obvious that the view across the river is identical to the view portrayed on the hand painted altar piece portraying the Magdalene kneeling in the grotto and it is now apparent the buildings portrayed on the skyline are not Jerusalem after all but the Tour Magdala from the reverse angle. Have managed to penetrate about fifteen metres into the cave. There is a second tunnel forking to the left seven metres from the start of the crawl. The passage seems to have been artificially filled with red earth and it is only thanks to recent erosion I have been able to penetrate this far. At the end of the crawl there is evidence someone has been trying to dig further using an empty tin..."
"The second cave was a lot deeper. Wormed my way at least twenty metres before it widened out enough for me to be able to stand. Again, there were signs of recent human activity and I managed to retrieve an abandoned flashlight bearing the name 'RAY JOLLY' and what looks like a partially erased telephone number. Flashlight still has some juice in it and is marked by three deep striations that look like... well, I dunno, kinda like teeth marks... must have been a big mother, whatever it was..."
Odd hissing feedback - unpleasantly similar to the de Rigney tape.
R.S.: "I mean, it's not like this place is supposed to have a monster in the first place. No hounds, beasts, black dogs or ABC's (Alien Big Cats), but it's got every other goddam mystery so why not? It's not like you can drop your flashlight and not notice it and these gashes are pretty... pronounced..."
Feedback returns, obscuring words.
R.S.: "...measure the teeth marks so we can figure out just what sort of critter we're dealin' with here..."
THE CHURCH - 3. 28 pm October 13th 1992
R.S.: "Now facing the bas relief on the altar. It does seem to portray the same cave I entered earlier. A series of triangular and oblong markings surround the hand-painted image. Rosy cross imagery remains curiously persistent... same deal with the ol' skull and bones. Then, of course, there is the matter of the blue oranges."
CELIA: "Blue apples."
R.S.: "Sorry. Blue apples. As in the second Rennes document. This apparently relates to the blue fruit-like objects, that appear in the borders of the designs in the stained glass windows, although they look more like grapes to me. Which relates to the theory that on, is it the winter solstice?"
CELIA: "The seventeenth of January..."
Feedback momentarily obscures words.
R.S.: "...lettering on the left hand side of the door appears very old, older than the 19th century. On the left hand side, the letters are clear but on the right they have been inexplicably erased. In fact, they appear to have been chiselled out."
Feedback reaches crescendo. Then fades.
R.S.: "On the right hand side the words above the door are paraphrased: "This is the house of God. Be aware that you are in the temple of God. In this House the treasure is within you". Sauniere plainly understood that the key to the treasure is the treasure. Which brings us back to Asmodeus..."
Loud recurrence of feedback. Words again indistinguishable.
THE CHURCH - Approx. 3.30 pm - October 13th 1992
R.S.: "It appears as if the statue of the devil is spreading five fingers on his knee. In the neighbourhood of Rennes les Bains is a rock known locally as the 'Bread Rock' (Pere du Pain), in which are five hollows called the 'Devil's Hand'. Just below the formation known as the 'Trembling Rocks' is a stone seat cut into a boulder resting in a kind of natural amphitheatre named the 'Devil's Armchair' (Fauteuil du Diable), that Marcel referred to as the 'Centre of the Circle', and in point of fact the fingers of the devil's other hand do form a circle as if he were holding something, a missing staff or trident... Hang on, the lights just went out..."
I waited for a moment beside the font for Celia to return, giving the chapel a last once over before locking up and heading for the car, still as baffled and thoroughly amused as ever. On a whim I found myself drawn back to a certain area, let's say for the sake of this text, it might have been the interior of the confessional and to my growing surprise, found a loose board that came away all too easily in my hands. Barely a cosmetic gesture, but the premises was barred to the public at the time and I had momentarily found myself in what you might call a 'security gap'. I felt a breath of stale, dank air against my face and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I quite plainly made out the curve of a narrow flight of stone steps leading steeply downwards to connect with what could only be the vault beneath the church.
I hesitated, hearing Celia's voice as she chatted to a friend outside the presbytery, Dagobert barking in the distance. To get any closer I would have to clamber through the missing panel and although I might make it down the steps, I knew I'd be caught in the act before I had time to extricate myself and it seemed wrong to violate Celia and Marcel's trust so blatantly. I might find out what they were hiding but I'd screw up our friendship in the process and that mattered more to me. So I put the board back in place, silently vowing to settle the mystery's hash at a later date. At least now I knew where the entrance was even if I didn't know what the chamber held, nor would I find out what lay at the base of those steps for another fifteen years, not until the summer of 2007 when the mystery finally unravelled and the last pieces of the gaudy, gothic jigsaw fell into place.
Despite the presence of a black Madonna in the neighbouring hamlet of Limoux, nothing I had seen readily connected to the earlier events in Montserrat so I might have been forgiven for not realizing the two seemingly separate stories would somehow turn out to be part of the same enigma, a unified conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories.
On the strength of what I had seen and heard I didn't honestly believe there was anything supernatural going on in Rennes at all. The real story seemed to be in the character of its participants and not in any hypothetical 'sacred treasure'. It had been two long years since I had walked into that botannica on the lower East Side and in the interim I had gone a long way towards convincing myself the whole thing was just a ludicrous chain of 'coincidence', that nothing inexplicable had truly occurred. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence and caving in to faith just isn't my bag. The mind is a monkey and back then mine was too busy swinging through the multi-dimensional jungle gym of the Rennes pentagram to see the wood for the trees.
For starters, there was that business with the 22 steps that Marcel had been at such pains to point out during our initial tour, which I now realized corresponded not only with the steps of Jacob's Ladder, but the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, taking my investigation quite literally to the next level.