Chapter 17: Luxae Tenebris - Darkness Visible
In the dark days after the Moreau affair I all but forgot about the Ark of the Covenant but Channel Four Television hadn't quite forgotten about me.
On my return to London I had submitted a treatment concerning the rival treasure hunters in the Rennes area entitled Raiding the Lost Ark and my words were duly read, dissected, filed and regurgitated. I can't blame the suits for not being too happy about what I'd come back with. Not only had I failed to deliver an Ark but I didn't even believe in the blessed thing. Worst of all, there were no Nazis in my treatment and the religion department wanted Nazis. Nazis were good for ratings apparently, but Rennes had not only had a quiet war, there was simply no evidence that the occupying forces had come anywhere near it, nor at any time was anyone involved with the Hitler regime ever seriously looking for the lost Ark, or, for that matter, Ravenscroft's fictional spear of Longinus
If necessity is the mother of invention then desperation must be its granddaddy, and when asked to take a second pass at the treatment I jumped at the chance, hoping to find a way to fit the material into the requisite Indiana Jones-shaped hole. While Rennes failed to deliver on either Ark or stormtroopers, there was a story associated with one of the neighbouring villages that seemed to fit the bill and I resolved to massage the facts accordingly.
Although essentially a political ideology, the quest to define an esoteric aspect to National Socialism and reposition Mein Kampf accordingly as a mystical or quasi-religious text had begun even before the war, but acquired a renewed impetus after the collapse of the Hitler dictatorship. Thousands of SS-men and ordinary Wehrmacht confined to detention camps or facing ruin in post-war Germany sought an ideal they could cling to, that was beyond the reach of the conquering Allies and unsullied by the criminal actions of their vanquished leadership. Some retreated into denial, while others found reassurance in seeing their defeat as an inevitable chapter in a millennial struggle between the forces of good and evil that would eventually see their beliefs exonerated and the greater Aryan race triumph over its imaginary oppressors.
The earliest published accounts of these so-called 'Nazi mysteries' appear in Pauwels and Bergier's The Dawn of Magic, aka The Morning of the Magicians (1960), and Hitler et Les Tradition Cathare, aka The Occult and the Third Reich (US paperback edition - 1971), by Jean-Michel Angebert, a joint pseudonym for Michel Bertrand and Jean Angelini and appears to be the source both for Lawrence Kasdan's Raiders script and the wildly mendacious, self-published memoir of retired Texan army officer and chilli cook-off champion Colonel Howard Buechner. The former army surgeon's main claim to fame, that he was the 'first Allied doctor to enter Dachau', has gone largely unchallenged but these events take up less than a chapter of his very strange book, Emerald Cup - Ark of Gold.
Buechner seems to believe that the 'treasure of the Cathars' (an obscure 12th century heresy once prevalent in the south of France) was none other than the mythological 'Holy Grail' itself, which he equates with the 'cup of Abraham', carved by master Afghan craftsmen from a single emerald and used by Salem to consecrate the temple in Ur of the Chaldees. The cup allegedly became part of the 'sacred treasure of the Jews' and resided in the 'holy of holies', before being removed to Europe by the Romans. According to Buechner, the Nazi's not only located the sacred treasure in the ruins of the cathar stronghold at Montsegur but succeeded in securing it from the Allies in a daring commando raid, led by none other than Otto Skorzeny himself. He claimed the 'emerald cup' had later been spirited to safety in Antarctica by a secret U-boat convoy along with the 'real Adolf Hitler', his surviving brass and pretty much every other lost, mythical treasure you can shake a stick at.
In a loony tunes take on the 'myth of the eternal return' further embroidered over the years by countless pseudohistorians and sundry right wing mythomaniacs the fuhrer survives, safe in the protective womb of the hollow earth, presiding over an esoteric struggle against the war's exoteric victors and waiting for the stars to come round to their right place before rising like King Arthur, Osama bin Laden or Cthulhu before him to conjure a glorious Fourth Reich from the frozen embers, symbolized by the 'black sun', the 12-armed Merovingian rune wheel that appears on the floor of the Hall of the Supreme Leadership in the SS Order Castle (the Wewelsberg near Padeborn) and believed by some to represent the dark light of the 'world within'.
I've heard enough shaggy dog stories to be able to smell one a mile away and whilst entertaining enough in it's own silly Boys Own Adventure kinda way, I was all too aware that Buechner's fantasy had a potentially dangerous downside. Since the assassination of their leader George Lincoln Rockwell in the sixties, the American Nazi Party has taken a much more subtle and insiduous approach to the media, adopting the neo-Trotskyite policy of 'entryism' by secretly infiltrating thriving pop cultural movements such as the late 20th century UFO community or the modern New Agers (via intermederies such as David Icke and Nexus magazine) to sow the seeds of militant pan-Aryanism without drawing attention to their racist agenda.
The so-called 'Nazi mysteries' (ie: Ravencroft's spear, Kasdan's Ark and Buechner's 'Emerald Cup') have been adopted into the canon of these warped beliefs and there is no doubt the modern neo-Nazis reaped some benefit from ol' Indy in the process, something Steven Spielberg definitely wouldn't like to consciously consider. All publicity is good publicity after all, a factor demonstrated by the way Opus Dei recently capitalized on the Da Vinci Code, with membership soaring despite their portrayal in the film as comic book bad guys. It is possible that these seemingly harmless fantasies can inadvertently prick the curiosity of young minds, while simultaneously distracting from the cruel memory of the Third Reich itself in suggesting that the Nazi's were an interesting, potentially spiritual people with something to say rather than a bunch of common or garden thugs.
Accordingly, I approached Buechner's yarn with due trepidation, setting aside just 24 hours to familiarize myself with the village of Montsegur before returning to the Rennes area where the real story seemed to be. If I could only find out once and for all what lay beneath the church, I figured Channel Four would have to take notice and I was quietly hoping I might be able to drop the Indiana Jones-angle entirely. My companions on this outing were a researcher and occasional writer for the Fortean Times, who was struggling to rework the Rennes treatment for Channel Four's consumption and my first girlfriend, Kate, who had taken such violent exception to Dario's movies all those years ago. Having come to the conclusion that a material rather than supernatural treasure lay at the core of the 'Rennes mystery', I had no reason to believe that I might have been putting the lady in danger by bringing her with me.
We arrived in the village of Montsegur late in the day and I resolved to hike up to the ruined castle on the mountaintop to watch the sun go down. We were due to make an early start the following morning, so this would be my one and only chance to take in the remains of the 12th century citadel fancifully identified by Buechner as the 'Grail Castle'. As we climbed higher, our writer friend seemed to grow visibly more nervous and by the time we came in sight of the walls of the keep he was feeling too uncomfortable to continue further. Demanding that we hand over the car keys he turned tail and made a hurried descent, leaving Katie and myself to enter the castle alone. It had been a beautiful, clear late summer day and the light and space of the high mountains as well as the thrill of being back on the trail had lifted my spirits but in hindsight our friend's nervous behaviour was the first subtle hint that Montsegur was not a place to be taken lightly. As the sign on the fence at Stonehenge puts it:
"Warning! Ancient monuments can be dangerous!"
Shrugging off our friend's abrupt departure, we found our way to the highest point in the castle, the broad white battlement overlooking the gorge of the Ers river far below. Even then it occurred to me that there was something a little strange about the castle's construction, as if it were constructed backwards, to keep something in instead of out but there was so little left of it other than those oddly calcinated walls, that it offered scant clues as to the true purpose of its construction. Montsegur, literally the 'secure' or 'safe mountain' was the greatest of the cathar strongholds, widely held to represent the earliest examples of gothic architecture to appear in Europe, a fact of history that was yet to assume its true import in my muddled post-Moreau mind. After all, the knowledge that Fulcanelli seemed to decode from the gothic cathedrals had to have come from somewhere to begin with, but I had yet to engage with the obvious implications of what exactly that ancient technology might have entailed.
While immediately impressed by the fact that anyone could have built such a beautiful and complex construction at this altitude, I suffered from the typically smug 21st century assumption that the inhabitants of 12th century Occitania had been our scientific and intellectual inferiors, rustic, unlettered, superstitious, essentially 'medieval' with all the mud-spattered, gurning, Pythonesque barbarity that word implies. For good or for bad, I was about to have that misconception shattered forever.
As the sun settled behind the Pic de Saint Barthelemy (from whence Sauniere's 'housekeeper' drew her surname 'Denarnaud-Barthelemy', since you ask), a golden spume of cloud boiled up out of the west, moving so fast it was as if we were watching real-time animation or some form of time lapse photography. In fact, it put me in mind of another Spielberg movie entirely and this being the nineties and UFO's being all the rage, we half-expected the 'mothership' from Close Encounters to show up at any moment.
But it wasn't a bunch of benevolent aliens. It was a sudden, violent late summer storm and it was coming right at us.
Forked lightning flickered within the thunderhead and realizing we were perched on the very highest point in the landscape, we decided to make ourselves scarce. We got as far as the natural buttress just below the castle wall when the storm closed around us and lightning began to strike into the walls of the keep, and the flanks of the mountain below, close enough to make our hair stand on end, much closer than I ever wanted to get to that kind of voltage. The cloud swirled about the peak as if the castle were somehow sucking in the lightning, four or five streamers of writhing white hot plasma intertwining at a time, reaching down out of the vortex like a vast inhuman hand, and all the while a blinding light streamed from the doors and curiously angled 'arrow slits' - a light so bright I thought I might never see anything again.
Warm rain squalled over us and the light drained from the day as we huddled together like trapped animals, trying to make ourselves as small as possible. Let's face it, we know very little about lightning to begin with and if the 'supernatural' is merely the natural to the power of ten, then this was the genuine article. A single bolt of lightning can kill you without even touching you. The electro-magnetic pulse alone is enough to stop the human heart even at a distance, and there were literally hundreds of thousands of volts earthing themselves within a few feet of us. The sheer existential terror of it came upon us as suddenly as if we had been caught in a violent riptide, the belittling sensation of being clasped in the jaws of something far bigger and more powerful than ourselves, along with the dawning suspicion that we might at any moment be reduced to a smouldering grease spot.
There was a strange, half-familiar smell that I took at first to be the smell of the wet mountainside, a sweet smell vaguely reminiscent of the icing on a wedding cake. A hint of almonds. Kate had been whimpering in sheer panic, but when that smell began to grow stronger she curled more tightly against me and fell silent as if she were too scared to make a sound, too frightened to even breathe or open her eyes in case 'it' somehow saw or sensed her. And there were other sounds that seemed to come from out of the storm. Hard as this is to believe or accept, there were sounds like voices, like the cries of human souls burning in hellfire. Later I tried to justify this absurdity by telling myself it was merely the bellowing of the cattle in the fields far below, their lowing amplified and distorted by the weird Alpine acoustics. I tried, like I say, but at the time I was reduced to a cowering state of gibbering 'medieval' terror, which is doubtless what I deserved for having been dumb enough to take the Holy Grail as a joke to begin with.
The only way out lay the way we had come and we tried to insulate ourselves as best we could, getting rid of all the metallic objects on our bodies, discarding money, watches and jewelry before crawling on our hands and knees towards the maw of the keep and the source of that strobing incandesence.
I was gripped by a sense of unreality, similar to the way it felt the first time I had gotten too close for comfort with a Great White while diving as a teenager off the Cape of Good Hope, a sense that I was somehow watching a special effect rather than the real thing. It had looked just like Bruce, the mechanical shark in Jaws, dorsal fin cutting the water, rubbery grey skin dappled by sunlight, and that lightshow in the keep looked like dodgy optical effects from the last reel of a Hollywood supernatural thriller, the bolts of plasma so insanely bright they might have been scratched into the emulsion with the tip of a scalpel. Only it wasn't a movie...
We paused as we reached the courtyard. We were both convinced we could see something moving in there, what at first appeared to be figures but I rationalized it as the shadows of dense, fast-moving clouds, projected by random flashes of lightning against the stonework. Then Kate began to scream.
In years to come, I would learn the walls of the castle form a 'Faraday cage' and the voltage coursing through them that night would have inevitably effected the electromagnetic field within the keep itself. All I knew at the time was that as Katie stepped through the archway, she began to quiver and thrash, eyes rolling up in their sockets as if in the grip of an incipient grande mal, her body shuddering with such violence that I truly believed she was being attacked, caught in the grip of some unseen presence from out of the dark.
My nightvision is normally 20:20, but the lightning was playing hell with my visual purple and between bursts the gloom was impenetrable. Grabbing her flailing figure, I tried in vain to put myself between her and whatever seemed to be attacking her, physically dragging her out of the courtyard and part way down the mountainside where her pulse and breathing seemed to gradually stabilize.
"What did they do here? What did they f*****g do in this place?!"
Those were the only words I can recall her saying, repeated over and over like a mantra in my mind through the long years to come, but at that time I had no answer for her.
Strange, drifting points of green light seemed to fill the night around us and when we reached the treeline, we realized the woods were alive with glow worms, presumably roused by the sudden rain. Kate's breathing became quicker and more tortured as we reached the base of the slope and she began to tremble violently, unable to move any further on her own. Then there was another fusillade of lightning and she collapsed into what I would have taken to be a fully blown seizure had she had any previous history of epilepsy, thrashing like a broken bug on the wet grass, screaming and screaming, looking for all the world like one of those 'possessed' nuns from the eponymous Ken Russell movie.
I caught hold of her and she raged against me, but I refused to leave her to lie, not there, not at that particular spot, anywhere but there. The last of the cathars had died at Montsegur in 1242 but they didn't die in the castle. They had been dragged down the mountainside by their persecutors and burned alive on what has come to be known as the 'Camp de Cremat', the first level place where the crusaders could build a stockade and gather the necessary brushwood. Kate didn't know she had fallen at that very spot and I had no intention of telling her or allowing her stay put.
Whatever it was that had found us on the mountaintop, seemed to follow as we struggled back to the nearby village and the tiny auberge, where we had taken lodging. We banged frantically on the door of our writer friend's room, demanding he give us back the car keys, but for whatever reason he refused to open the door or allow us in. I heard Kate utter my name and as I turned towards her she reached out. The clasps that held back the steel shutters on the window immediately behind her were abruptly torn free by the storm as her voice tailed off into a hideous, rattling moan. Her hand caught hold of my right arm, so tight the bruise took more than a week to fade, her eyes bulging as the veins seem to force their way to the surface of her purpling skin, her twisted face as livid and engorged as a week old corpse, the lashing shutters slamming crazily against their quivering frame like something from The Amityville Horror, white light blazing in at me as if whatever it was we had encountered in the keep was right there outside the window or perhaps already in the room.
Digging Kate's nails from my flesh, I lunged towards the window and narrowing my eyes against the light reached out into the roaring void. Catching the wildly swinging shutters I drew them closed, wedging them sensibly in place with a steel bar. And at that very moment Katie caught her breath and folded to the floor, losing consciousness as if the plug had been pulled on whatever force that animated her. Normal color had returned to her cheeks and while our relationship was dead on arrival, I contented myself with the fact that she was at least breathing. I settled myself in an armchair beside her, too shaken to sleep and as the storm howled outside, began to re-read everything I could find on the castle's history.
Dawn was clear and cloudless, as if the night before had never happened. Our writer 'friend' was sullen and withdrawn at breakfast, refusing to discuss the events of the previous evening other than to bitch about all the screaming and banging having interrupted his sleep. The British psyche being what it is, I imagine he assumed we were either on drugs or had been engaging in some form of rough trade sex and slamming the furniture around accordingly. When pushed on the subject, he eventually suggested we had probably been suffering from a 'shared hallucination', not the last time I would hear such an excuse in the course of my enquiries, but for now it seemed to fit the bill.
The only person who believed us was our hostess, the auberge's aging landlady. We were lodging in what turned out to be the oldest house in the village and Madame Couquet had lived there all her life and her father before her. She was as wise as the wild, green hills, and had seen enough to know we weren't play-acting or 'hallucinating'. After all, she explained, we had been sleeping in Otto's room.
And who the hell was Otto?
And for the first time I heard the story of the young SS officer, who had come to Montsegur in the days before the war, in search of the most sacred relic in Christendom, the most high holy Grail and how some believed he had attained that quest. Madame Couquet had been a little girl at the time, but she remembered the tall, silent German well and had kept his room just as it had been back in the day he had taken lodging there. Otto Rahn had seen something in the keep on his first visit, something that failed to gel with his rational, typically German intellect, something he couldn't adequately explain that drew him back to the castle again and again and ultimately turned him against the corrupt regime he had initially served.
Apparently Rahn was an old man now, but according to Marius Mounie, the former mayor, he still visited the area. Marius was no spring chicken himself, and for his story to be true, Rahn would have to be a septogenerian, but then it does say in Wolfram von Eschenbach's 12th century troubadour epic Parsifal, that whoever has the Grail or comes near to it "will have eternal life."
Of course our friend from the Fortean Times wasn't having a word of it. The events of the night before had left him increasingly convinced that Montsegur was a dangerous distraction from the main story, and despite the fact I had undergone something of a Damascene conversion, I could scarcely disagree. There was unfinished business in Rennes and the matter of what really lay beneath the church remained tantalizingly unresolved, although I was starting to suspect that what seemed to be the missing piece of the puzzle, the treasure itself, would probably add up to less than the sum of the increasingly strange details that surrounded it.
The fact that I was starting to become a 'believer' probably alienated my co-writer even more than the ruckus the night before, but for the first time my waking mind had begun to admit to the possibility that something genuinely inexplicable was at work, something that couldn't be readily put down to the antics of the cranks and treasure hunters drawn to the area, but I lacked the perspective and maturity to join the dots and in the end grudgingly agreed to omit all mention of the Rahn affair from the report submitted to Channel Four.