“I probably never would have become America’s leading fire-eater if Flamo the Great hadn’t happened to explode that night in front of Krinko’s Great Combined carnival Side Shows”
I bet every single discussion of Daniel P Mannix’s work opens with the above quote, taken from Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, but it’s such a brilliant line I had no choice. Blame Dem, whose suggestion of The Hellfire Club as a NEL horror title got my brain-cells going. Anyway, if this quote has been over-used, then how about the first few sentences from The Hellfire Club…
“Weird stories were told of the fabulously rich and brilliant Sir Francis Dashwood. He’d had a vast system of caves dug in a cliff near his estate at West Wycombe, some 33 miles northwest of London, and villagers passing the entrance late at night told of seeing strange figures in red robes dragging screaming girls into the black entrance. But no one liked to complain because Sir Francis was such a pleasant gentleman.” Or this from Half and Half…
“Even though she was very attractive, I never could really fall in love with Frances-Francine because I didn't know if she was a man or woman. Finally I asked her and she told me frankly, "I don't know myself, Slim."
Assuming you’re still reading and haven’t dashed off to break into your local charity book-store to find copies of Mannix’s books, let me tell a bit more about the fellow. Not that I actually do know that much.
I do know he passed away in the late 1990s just before his eighty-fifth birthday, and crammed more in his years than 99% of us. As well as joining a circus sideshow and perfecting acts such as sword-swallowing and mind-reading, Mannix was a keen hunter who was often employed as a collector by large zoos, and formed the first international Wizard of Oz fan-club.
He was also capable of writing classic children’s novels such as The Fox and the Hound, and then, in the crack of a whip, capable of switching to A History of Torture (1964.) A lover of animals, he died surrounded by a menagerie of birds and reptiles and penned an ecological novel Troubled Waters (1971), yet loved blasting the life out of big-game with a blunder-buss! As recorded in his A Sporting Chance (1967) a non-fiction guide to “unusual methods of hunting.” So I’m guessing he was a complex character…
One of Mannix’s rarest books is We Who Are Not Like Others (1976) which is a humane and fascinating account of the lives of the ‘freaks’ whom populated travelling side-shows. As it was withdrawn by Pocket Books from circulation after only one month the only way to obtain a copy and still pay your rent will be through the Re-Search books reprint.
"A fantastic gallery of human freaks - their lies, loves, dilemmas, and achievements! With rare and amazing photos! Read all about the notorious love affairs of midgets - the amazing story of the elephant boy - the transvestite who was a spy for Louis XV - the unusual amours of Jolly Daisy, the fat woman - the strange sex lives of Siamese twins - the famous pinhead who inspired Verdi's Rigoletto - the tragedy of Betty Lou Williams and her parasitic twin - the black midget, only 34 inches tall, who was happily married to a 264-pound wife - the human torso who could sew, crochet, and type - and bizarre accounts of normal humans turned in to freaks - either voluntarily or by evil design!”
Mannix’s early interest in the occult was displayed in The Hell-Fire Club and The Beast; The Scandalous Life of Aleister Crowley (1959), the latter being the first mass-market paperback devoted to the enduring cult figure. And is listed as recommended reading by The Church of Satan. Beats the ‘Richard and Judy book club’ hands-down!
Black Cargoes (1962) was a non-fiction study of the slave trade which is suitably gruelling, whilst Kiboko is a fictionalised account of the same subject, taking its title from the name of a whip made of rhinoceros hide. I’ve not seen copies of An End to Fury (Corgi, 1961), Healer (Avon, 1973) and Drifter (Fawcett, 1975)
Mannix’s best book is Those About to Die (1960) his account of the gladiatorial arenas of Ancient Rome and supposedly the inspiration for the Ridley Scott block- buster Gladiator. This work is pure Mannix and sums up all that is compelling and vivid about his writing- managing to present history in a manner which made it the most exciting book I have ever read.
Erudite commentators have suggested that Mannix didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, but if history had been presented in such a manner at my school it may well have gained my attention. In many ways, the contemporary range of ‘Horrible Histories’ books aimed at teenagers are very much descendants of Mannix and his work.
Anyone else out there with any knowledge on Mannix or opinions on his work?
Finally got my hands on a copy of The Hell Fire Club and what has particularly enthused me is his style, which, while not quite the wildly sensationalist approach adopted by Peter Haining for his *ahem* "non-fiction" excursions, nonetheless makes Mannix's history lesson read like a fast-paced novel. The passages pertaining to the days London hooligan gang scene are too lengthy to quote here so instead, here's his take on the passions of the proto-Hooray Henry's and Henrietta's during the eighteenth century which provides an awful lot of information for so few sentences.
"Even when the rakes walked the streets they were followed by retinues of down-and-out artists, sculptors, couriers and foreign travel, purveyors of pornographic literature, wine merchants, and pimps. The noblemen had discovered Europe, art and pornography, and their interests were about evenly divided among the three. Hard liquor had recently been introduced into society and revolutionized drinking habits. The passion for the macabre was as strong as with our own adolescents. A motion picture such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf would have been as popular then as now. To give an eerie quality to their estates, the noblemen planted dead trees on the grounds and hired hermits to live in specially dug caves. They even employed men to tame bats, vipers, and owls to live in the artificial caves with the hermits. In a attempt to capture the ghostly grandeur of Italy and Greece, they built ruined temples in out-of-the-way corners of their gardens and got sculptors to make statues with missing heads, arms, and legs, to resemble the antique statues that were so mutilated. The School of Terror appeared in literature, started by Horace Walpole's famous novel The Castle of Otranto the original of all the haunted castles in fiction. It was followed by "Monk" Lewis' great work ,in which a girl is locked in a cellar with the dead body of, her illegitimate baby. The mother continues to try to nurse the decaying child and is delighted to find that she is wearing white rings .. . maggots are crawling around her fingers. There was such a passion for vampires, ghosts, ghouls, and ghouls that some young men insisted on drinking their wine out of skulls especially stolen for them from the graveyards by body-snatchers."
Calenture kindly sent me a copy of the 1967 Panther edition of Those About To Die which, shamefully, has lurked unread somewhere mid-way down the by now absolutely fucking terrifying read pile (third of four stacks), but it's day is getting closer off the back of this stormer. Inspired recommendation, chaps.
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty. - Christine Campbell Thomson