Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Where is the Ghoul?

Has it ever struck you that we have no idea where The Ghoul is set?
Me neither, until relatively recently. But when you watch a film as often as I’ve watched this equally beloved and maligned Tyburn showstopper (I believe the correct medical term is ‘too often’), it is inevitable that you start to think about it in ways and to degrees that its infrastructure was never designed to reward or uphold. 

Now, some films tell you where they are set and some films don’t: no big deal.
But The Ghoul is intriguing because it mentions one location and one only: Land’s End, the ultimate destination of the car race that lands the four heroes in so much cannibalistic trouble.
But we don’t know if they actually get there, or, if not, how close they get by the time disaster strikes. And we don’t know where they start from either.
I had always lazily assumed that it was indeed in the vicinity of Land’s End that they find themselves stranded, but we are never actually told this for sure. The unhelpful local policeman has some kind of a Westcountry accent, but we are not explicitly informed even of the county. I also assumed, even more lazily as it turns out, that they started from London, and was frankly amazed, when I double-checked, to learn that my assumptions are completely unsupported by anything in the film itself. Neither is it at all likely, since the only assistance we are given is the observation that Land’s End is “over a hundred miles” from where they begin, immediately corrected to “more like two.”

Land's End, Summer 2012

Every year the wife and I spend a week with my parents at an inn just inland of Land’s End, and most mornings I get up at 5 and enjoy the lonely cliff walk to England’s most southerly point as dawn rises.
As many of you will know, Land’s End itself is now a giant tourist attraction, a shopping village cum theme park which is, I’m sure, a living hell during the day, when it’s crammed with soggy visitors and you have to pay to get in. But first thing in the morning even this is beautiful: eerily quiet (and who doesn’t love the idea of wandering through a totally deserted tourist attraction?), the whistling wind the only sound, and dozens upon dozens of rabbits the only living things in sight.
I’d like to say I spend most of my time on these walks pondering the deep mysteries of existence and the universe, and it’s true, when the first rays of the sun hit those timeless rocks, standing now just as they have through the whole history of human life in this most primitive and inspiring of lands, I do have my moments. But by and large, I’ll be honest, I’m thinking about The Ghoul.

There’s a large, somewhat eerie, strangely melancholy white house en route (above), all alone in extensive but featureless grounds, that I always liked to think was the original location of Dr Lawrence and his oddball household. But now it seems unlikely that Daphne, Angela, Billy and Geoffrey ever got this far.
Just how near did they get?

So, over breakfast one morning I put the matter to my dad, who’s much better at this sort of thing than I am.
Here’s the challenge, I explained: Four people in the 1920s are attempting to drive to Land’s End. Let us suppose that they live in a reasonably large town, given their wealth, awareness of fashions in an age of limited media, and the large number of like minds attending their parties. Their destination is between one and two hundred miles from the start point, and somewhere, along the shortest and most reasonable pre-motorway route, they pass through boggy moorland and become stranded. (Since both cars separately end up there, it is reasonable to suppose that neither took a wrong turning.) So where have they probably started from, and where have they probably ended up?
The first thing you can do, he told me – long before you need to get specific with a map and compasses – is rule out London. Given the distances involved and the time taken, it is simply not a logical candidate for home base at all.
Now, if you draw two circles on a map, one representing 100 miles from the radial point of Land’s End and the other two hundred, and assume that the start point must be somewhere within those two circles, the range of possibilities is surprisingly small. A lot of it, of course, is underwater, and given that our heroes travel by car we can rule that out as confidently as London, if not more so.
Among the dry bits, my father reckons, the most likely candidates, from a shortlist that also includes Southampton, Yeovil and Salisbury, are Bristol, Bath and Bournemouth. I have decided to go for Bath, because I happen to live there, and it’s nice.
Now, where do they end up? Not a lot of moors on that route, and the only possibilities are Exmoor, Dartmoor or Bodmin Moor, with the latter by far the most likely, and the only one in Cornwall. It’s an appropriately misty, marshy and mysterious place, with many secluded corners, steeped in folklore and legend. (Not sure that any of its inhabitants needed to sleep inside mosquito nets, even in the 1920s, but we’ll allow Anthony Hinds that much dramatic license.)
Therefore, I propose that they set off from Bath and, with their target almost in sight, became stranded somewhere on Bodmin Moor.

I hope that’s put your mind at rest.

If only they had made it, I'm sure they'd have spent a more than comfortable night  in this splendid art deco hotel on the cliff walk between Land's End and Sennen Cove ...

... but they'd probably have been made less welcome at this magnificently austere temperance hotel on Land's End itself.

The other mystery about The Ghoul, of course, is just how that poor bugger ended up the way he is in the first place.
All we know is that he joined a decadent, evil sect and was corrupted by the experience. But then what? Did he catch a disease, or was he cursed, or what? By what process does falling into bad company leave you with rotten green skin and the desire to eat people?
And what happens if they don’t give him human flesh? Will he die – surely for supernatural rather than physiological reasons, if so? Would his system really know the difference if they brought him pork chops and just pretended it was prime cuts of Veronica Carlson?
These and other questions will be explored in my forthcoming five-volume study What Kind of Ghoul Am I?

(By Matthew Coniam Photographs by Angela Coniam)