Chapter 2: Out of Africa
I was a child myself when I first came to Modjadji's kraal. My mother was an artist, a folklorist as much as an anthropologist and something of a proto-feminist, although I was too young to recognize any political dimension to her work at the time. Like many schoolboys of my generation I was familiar with H. Rider Haggard's fantasy She, which had been inspired by the flesh and blood myth.
Ayesha, 'She Who Must Be Obeyed', retains her eternal youth and beauty by bathing in a singing, magical flame deep within the earth that consumes her in order to make her whole. According to Haggard's text at the base of the flame appear the glyphs of an ancient language, hewn in living rock:
"That which is alive has known death, and that which is dead can never die, for in the Circle of the Spirit life is naught and death is naught. Yea, all things live forever, though at times they sleep and are forgotten..."
H.P. Lovecraft, in The Nameless City (1921), attributed an oddly paraphrased version of this text to the 'mad' Arab Abdul al Hazred (possibly a pun on the words: "all has read") and it is in fact the sole direct quote the great man is ever foolhardy enough to offer from his notorious, 'fictional' grande grimoire, The Necronomicon:
That which is not dead can eternal lie and with strange aeons even death may die...
(*For the sake of our narrative it is easier to assume the adolescent H.P.L. simply filched the quote from Haggard, one of his undoubted literary heroes. There is of course another explanation, that both writers were working from variant translations of the same text but that is a different story for a darker and longer night.)
I never did get to meet the Black Mother herself, at least not on that occasion, but the shadowy forest and its prehistoric cycads left an impression that lingered in my mind long after Africa itself was only a memory. The tides of time, war and the aftermath of European colonialism scattered my family across the face of the earth and after various misadventures typical of the period I found myself adrift in mid-eighties London with little more to my name than the clothes I wore and a pair of boots already past their sell-by date.
I had a cousin in Crouch End who who worked for Fleetway Comics on their Judge Dredd strip (in fact he helped originate the first, Zelazny-derived Cursed Earth-series and came up with the 'landmaster' design ripped off, to his lasting chagrin, by various toy companies ever since), so I duly found myself on his doorstep, which is as far as I got.
The sole familiar face I'd seen since leaving Africa appeared at one of the terrace house's upper windows and informed me that owing to various other 'issues' it would be best if I called back in a week or two and maybe we could meet for lunch. In fact I didn't see or hear of him again for a good five years.
Alone and footloose in north London I purchased a ticket to an all night movie show, hoping to catch a few winks before rethinking my options.
The Scala cinema in King's Cross was a former ape house, London's first and only 'Primatarium', its flaking walls lined with crawling jungle murals. The sort of thing Rousseau might have produced if you'd dosed him with Black Pentagram LSD. The murals were painted over in the early nineties when the cinema's fortunes went into decline but when last I looked there were still deserted cages in the basement and if you inhaled deeply enough you could catch the faint hint of musk and dried urine, a reassuring safari smell that connects to my earliest memories. The cinema was managed by a feisty young redhead named JoAnne Sellar who had previously worked the house as an usherette, trolling the sepulchral cat haunted aisles in her 'China Blue' wig and scraping gum off the seats between shows.
The former programmer Stephen Woolley and his partner Nik Powell had hit the big time after astutely acquiring the UK rights to Jean-Jacques Beneix's Diva and Sam Raimi's barnstorming debut The Evil Dead, fighting and winning a landmark case against the British censor along the way. With the Scala's parent company booming I stumbled onto the scene just as JoAnne's programming scaled new heights, which was how I came to see all of writer/director Dario Argento's major works for the first time in chronological order in a single, mind wrenching sitting.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Cat O' Nine Tails (1971)
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972)
Deep Red (1975)
By the time I emerged, still sleepless into the mid-eighties dawn, I knew I had been changed in various complicated ways I couldn't immediately comprehend.
It was all so much brighter, bigger, louder, more violent and infinitely more seductive than anything the moral guardians would have allowed to pass in the Dutch Reformed police state I had been born into. The Maestro had cast his spell over me and although I didn't know it I was already caught in the web that would lead to Rome.