Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Me & The Gorbals Vampire


In the run up to the opening next weekend (eek!!!) of my Edinburgh Fringe show VAMPIRES IN THE VAULT, I thought I'd talk here a little about the background of one of the two vampire tales I'm performing. (If you want to book tickets, link is H E R E ! ! !

THE GORBALS VAMPIRE, which I'm performing on Sat 8, Mon 10, Wed 12 & Fri 14 August, is inspired by one of the strangest true stories of post war Glasgow social history. The fact that I, mad keen on vampire tales since shoplifting my first copy of Dracula at the age of eight, spent a significant part of my youth staying with my grandmother Jessie Downs in her tenement at the corner of Langside Road and Butterbiggins Road, two turnings and about five minutes walk away from the Southern Necropolis, scene of the phenomenon gave the story immense resonance for me. I loved Hammer Horror, but here was a vampire story that took place not in distant Transylvania but just around the corner.

What actually happened is that in September 1954, local kids got the idea into their heads that a vampire with iron teeth was running amok in the graveyard devouring children. And so for several nights these kids would descend upon the graveyard en masse, some it is said even carrying wooden stakes with which to tackle the vampire directly. Police were called in to chase the kids away, headlines were made and the adult world started looking for a scapegoat for all this under age anarchy. They found it in the then current popularity of US horror comics, then in the super gory era of the EC horror comics such as Tales From The Crypt and The Vault Of Horror and their various competitors. Questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament and it wasn't long before a ban was imposed on the US comics.

In fact, the forces of the state may have been barking up completely the wrong tree: interviewed in later years, several of the now grown up vampire hunters denied they had ever read any of these comics and more local legends of an 'Iron Man' and a female monster, Jenny With The Iron Teeth, may have had more actual relevance to what happened.

But the whole thing essentially petered out with, alas, no real sighting or experience of anything that could honestly be said to be a vampire: a slightly anticlimactic ending for anyone other than a sociologist or a historian of censorship.

In consequence, I was haunted ever since first hearing the story by the thought of rectifying reality's inability to deliver a real honest to goodness vampire – and that's just what I've done in the story I'm performing at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe. My story is set a generation later, in 1976, all the better to relate it to the era of my childhood and allow a guest appearance for one of the great horror comics of my childhood, House Of Hammer.

In my story, ten year old Timmy is the son of one of the original vampire hunting kids: he's heard the story off his Dad and his incautious repeating of it one day gets him into a world of trouble, both human and supernatural. For this is no whimsical piece of tongue in cheek mock-gothic japery: I set out to produce a real honest to goodness gritty, disturbing supernatural story about the most unsettling subject imaginable, the destruction of a child's innocence by the most squalid and ancient evil, a piece more 'Exorcist' than 'Edward Scissorhands'.

I didn't want my vampire to be some kind of lah-di-dah Byronic aristocrat either: I pictured a vampire appropriate to the rather past-its-best setting of the Southern Necropolis: a rancid, ancient working class vampire in a shabby second hand tartan suit straight off a barrow in Paddy's Market, Nosferatu-bald save where barbed wire grows out of the back of his head, wrinkled and liver-spotted and generally smelly.

Fallen tombstones in Southern Necropolis

Gatehouse of the Southern Necropolis

Nature reconquers the Necropolis

And of course I took a wander, by way of my old Govanhill haunts, out to the Southern Necropolis when I was first gathering my ideas for the show. The photos from the trip are on this page. Particularly note 'The White Lady', actually a kind of timeworn grey in colour. A whole mythology surrounds the Lady herself: she's supposed to turn her head to look at you when you walk by, at least if you're not looking too close – and indeed to wander the graveyard freely after dark in ghostly form.

The White Lady

I was particularly struck by the pile of coins placed between her feet like votive offerings to an ancient Goddess. There I was in the middle of the Gorbals, an area – as ever – of sometimes grinding poverty, but no one had thought to help themselves to these coins, as if they belonged to the Lady and no one else. This caught hold of my imagination and the Lady herself features in my story, a kind of divine counterpoint to the the hellishness of the vampire himself.

These claw-like bushes rising from the tombs put in an appearance in the show!

That the gravestones almost seem to be humping one another adds to the illicit atmosphere

I'm really excited about the show: I need to set up performances in Glasgow after Edinburgh is done, because I think I've paid my home town, my own neighbourhood even as a South Sider, the best kind of tribute I've got in me: I've taken a quirky social incident and made it into an honest to goodness folk tale, a backstreet myth, a Gothic epic of good and evil.

More branches from beyond the grave!

Well, we'll see whether that comes across in a week and a half's time!  

The juxtaposition of graveyard & tower block crucial in the show

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