THE COUNTESS & I.
We go back a long way together, Erzsebet Bathory and I. One of my earliest childhod memories is of a Saturday afternoon in the Govanhill area of Glasgow when I badgered my parents to let me spend my pocket money on a book I had just seen in a shop along the road: the novelisation of Hammer Films’ version of the Bathory story Countess Dracula. My Mum and Dad, to be fair, were less worried about my exposure to the horrors within those pages (I was already the kind of kid allowed to sit up in his Star Trek pyjamas to watch the late night horror film on TV), than concerned over the waste of money on a book surely unreadable to a child with his age still in single figures. (“Think of all the long words,” I remember my Mum saying.) But I persevered and soon had my hands on my very first ‘grown-up’ book, with its gorgeous front cover of a beautiful young Ingrid Pitt and its disturbing back cover image of a grotesquely aged Pitt shoved in her prison cell at the end of the film (which therefore ends just before BLOOD & STONE begins.) And within those covers I was introduced to at least a fictionalised version of the great lady, right at the absolute inception of my literary life. She has haunted me ever since.
How could she not? As someone who firmly believes that great horror is achieved when – and only when - horror and beauty ring out at the same instant (No beauty? Then I’m not interested.), this woman, simultaneously magnificent and beautiful and monstrous beyond conception, might stand as the sheerest embodiment of that aesthetic, less a commonplace serial killer (yawn...) than a kind of wondrous, terrible Goddess of death, like Kali or Medea, Hecate or Clytemnestra.
Throughout the rest of my childhood, a childhood blessed with the true writer’s ability to promiscuously mingle ‘fact’ and fantasy, the tenement building in Glasgow’s Cathcart Road which housed that newsagent’s shop became for me the home of Countess Bathory. I would look at the dusty upper windows of that tenement and visualise the Countess locked up in there – for it was the image of the imprisoned Countess of her latter years that truly haunted my imagination. (Likewise, the toy shop across the street where I bought a model kit of Doctor Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde housed, in my imagination, that very laboratory somewhere in its back shop.)
And so, inevitably, I dreamed of one day creating my own artistic, dramatic vision of the Countess. The basic plot of BLOOD & STONE was already at least half-formulated in my mind by my teenage years, but I dithered over getting it down on paper, fearful perhaps of doing justice to the great lady, but also at a loss to think who would produce such a grim, Gothic story. It hardly seemed material for the BBC or the
Then, when a backpacking trip around Austria saw me basing myself in Vienna, in a hotel room so cheap the window looked out on a romantic airshaft heaped with dead pigeons, I felt the Countess herself taking a hand in the matter. There’s no time to deal with this in BLOOD & STONE, but not all the Countess’s atrocities were committed in her Hungarian Castle. She also had a townhouse in Vienna, just behind the Imperial Court (signifying how highly ranked her family were in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy) and committed some of her crimes there. The monks on the other side of the street used to chuck pots across at her window when the screams of tortured girls disturbed their devotions – but never thought of reporting someone so important to the authorities. Vienna doesn’t publicise her its Bathory connection like it publicises Mozart, but after a bit of detective work at the Vienna police museum, I worked out her Vienna address and made my way there after dark one night.
The street is narrow, poorly lit and with houses that seem to lean towards one another across the street in Caligari fashion. The doorway that once been hers was large but drably painted and many of the floors above in a building now split into offices and apartments looked empty, derelict, buried in dust. I couldn’t help but picture her staring out of the uppermost windows, haunting the spot still. And, standing there, I happened to glance a few doors along to the window of a small record shop on the same block. Two big musicals were playing in
that year: one of them, Elizabeth, portrayed the tragic 19th. Century empress ‘Sissi’, Austria’s very own Princess Di. The other show was Tanz Der Vampyr, a musical based on Roman Polanski’s film Dance Of The Vampires (aka Fearless Vampire Killers). But the way the posters for the two shows were juxtaposed in the window, one above the other, meant that what I saw when I glanced that way was the dim lamp light falling across two words only: Vienna
It was like a sign, direct from the ghost of the lady herself to my own imagination. I turned away, hurried back up the street towards the brighter lights and broader byways around the opera house. And I swear I could hear the moth-eaten folds of her gown hissing after me up the pavement, pursuing me all the way back to the grey shadows of that hotel room. That night I felt her crawling into my skull.
After that, I had to write something. The first form the idea took on paper was that of a stage play entitled Laundry, but this was a different piece from BLOOD & STONE: the bare bones of the plot were identical, but Laundry updated the story to modern Eastern Europe, both under and after Stalinism and was written in a surreal, absurdist style closer to Ionesco or Kafka or Durrenmatt than to a straightforward horror story. Inevitably, perhaps, no one knew what to do with a play so wilfully off-beat and peculiar so the script lay gathering dust, like the Countess’s ghost up behind those
But still I couldn’t let go of her; or she wouldn’t let go of me. The idea came to me to take the story back to what it had been in the first place: a pure no-bullshit gothic horror story, 17th. Century castle setting and all. When I took up professional storytelling, I performed a rough-and-ready 25 minute version of Blood And Stone during one of my regular stints with the Storytellers Of Nottingham in Nottingham’s haunted Trip To Jerusalem pub. It worked well, but seemed too big and intense for that tiny venue and limited slot, so I thought about developing it further as a full length piece in its own right. Meanwhile, I pitched it tentatively to BBC Scotland as a radio play, but they took understandable fright at the thought of something so dark and nasty coming on straight after The Archers. Then Mariele Runacre Temple, who’d already produced another play of mine, Medusa On The Beach, for her Wireless Theatre Company dropped me a line about a new audio drama company being set up specially to focus on horror drama. And I knew in an instant that the ghost which had trailed me along the
streets that night, which had maybe been trailing me all the way from that Vienna Glasgow street of my childhood, had found a home.