Published in Issue 3 of Visionary Tongue, Late Spring 1996.
When I was a child, other boys hoped merely to drive steam trains when they grew up. I aspired to be a mad scientist.
Blame it on cinema. One of my formative memories: Colin Clive in the 1931 Frankenstein, looking up wild-eyed and exclaiming ‘It’s alive!’ Another: Ernest Thesiger as the creepy Dr Praetorius in the sequel, setting out his supper in a crypt, and looking up unfazed to offer some to Karloff’s Monster. A third: Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, creating the robot doppelganger of Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
That last was my favourite. Surly and long-haired, Rotwang wore a single black glove eighty years before it became fashionable, and owned a laboratory rivalling Frankenstein’s for electrical hardware. Oh, how my budding sexuality was roused by Brigitte Helm lying bare-shouldered in a hooped cabinet, the apparatus copying her likeness to the robot. Roused even more because Rotwang’s duplicate of Maria had a different and exciting
personality: not a nice girl who did Good Works, but one who danced in decadent night-clubs and stood by while German aristocrats duelled to the death.
I scarcely followed the rest of the plot (why, I was only ten when I first saw the film). But I was left with that image of transformation, of the wimpy Maria turned into a sexual being by a dark technological magic known only to mad scientists.
Unfortunately, mad scientists need as long and tedious apprenticeships as sane ones. I had my grounding at Cambridge. ‘Science is sexy’ went a slogan of the time, but I found it more so than that catch-word implied. Others may have been bored by the endless chore of lectures and practicals, but for me there was a frisson of perverse sexuality. In physics, I read of master and slave circuits; in chemistry, of bonds and chains; in mathematics, of dominant variables, the constraints of an equation, and degenerate cases.
Though hard-working and above reproach by day, I confess that my evenings were often filled with solitary drinking. Hardly scientific, but it led me to what a mad scientist needs: a laboratory. At closing time (I thought of Michael Ripper as a Hammer landlord saying ‘Drink up, lad. Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’) I would stagger back to college to sober up on black coffee or read Films and Filming, sipping port, until I fell asleep.
One night I came back, port-thirsty, half-fell up the three storeys to my room, and – damn! – my bottle was empty. I had heard a rumour that down in the B staircase cellar was a stock for the dons to drink at high table. Grabbing a pocket torch, I set out to raid it.
A ridiculous scheme to a sober mind, but with caution anaesthetised by a skinful of alcohol and the prospect of more, I somehow managed to stagger down to that cellar and break in by unscrewing the door lock with my pen-knife. Disappointment. No stacks of port bottles there, but a low room cluttered merely with cabin trunks and tea-chests. Still, a minor mystery consoled me: at the rear, baulks of two-by-four half-hid another door, this of iron.
Secret places in familiar buildings always intrigued me. I had ridden the paternosters and explored the crannies of the University Library in search of the fabled cache of pornography in its tower. There too I had been unsatisfied; my quest had ended in a room revealing only heaps of yellowed National Geographic. But what could be here?
Rapidly sobering, I moved the timber and hauled the door ajar (it creaked alarmingly) to reveal the foot of a narrow spiral staircase. I climbed, losing count of my steps, until I lifted the final obstacle of a trapdoor and came out into an open space.
I swept the torch-beam about me, and was awed. I was under the roof of the college. Beams loomed, arched and fanned over me, a cathedral in miniature. Stepping through years of untouched dust, cobwebs billowing about me, I reached the single window and looked out. I saw moonlit rooftops, spires dreaming in the small hours, the River Cam far below. This was the place of my imagination, where I would make my laboratory.
Over a period of weeks, I equipped it. Usefully, a hall of residence opposite the college was being renovated, and the sound of pneumatic drills disguised my own work. I toiled there a few hours a day, then crept downstairs to carefully replace the timber over the staircase door before leaving.
My raw materials were harvested from all over the city in dozens of furtive and mostly illegal expeditions. The Sedgwick Geological Museum was a gloomy labyrinth of high wooden shelves. There I took spiralling ammonites, trilobites, spears of quartz and kidney-shaped masses of red hematite. There was the Whipple Museum, an unwatched treasure trove of animal specimens, stuffed or preserved in jars; and in the Old Cavendish (where Rutherford split the atom) antique physics apparatus and modern circuit boards lay
side-by-side wrapped in newspaper.
My own college’s library supplied armfuls of books. At night I took leather buckles from bicycle saddlebags, a pair of swimming goggles from the sports changing room, and the iron frame of a single bed, spanned by a diamond grid of springs.
All these I dragged up the spiral stair and arranged by the light of many candles; no power points here. The place was as ready as I could make it.
Now I needed someone to share my obsession, and Jessica fitted my requirements. I found her by a cynical exploitation of my earliest love, of cinema. My college’s Film Society was all but defunct, and it was easy for me to join and inject new life into it. Within weeks, I was in a position of responsibility that allowed me to arrange a season of vintage screenings, and to observe who came.
I wanted to draw those who liked the scientific, the perverse, so I plied my audience with James Whale’s Frankenstein films, with Metropolis, with the Fredric March version of Jekyll and Hyde. When the supply house could provide no more classics, I moved to 50s science fiction B-movies, then Corman’s Poe adaptations with their prisons and dark machinery.
And, as inevitably as a fractal orbit circling toward an attractor point, I homed in on Jessica. Every week she was there, visible even in the semi-dark by her shock of red-dyed hair. After, I watched as she drank coffee; hardly gothic heroine material in Doc Martens, efficient culottes and pullover, but I was attracted by her retrousse nose and up-tilted eyebrows. She had a punky charm reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein.
I introduced myself, and soon we were dating. We walked the Backs, went on punt trips, talking camera angles, chiaroscuro, sub-texts, literary analogues. After three weeks, we shared a meal at Waffles and returned to my room and to my bed.
As I had suspected, I was impotent. I could respond to the covers of my collection of 1930s pulp magazines: The Mysterious Wu Fang (a Fu Manchu clone) gloating over a captive heroine, or Doctor Death leaning over a bare-breasted woman with hypodermic posed. But with Jessica, I was flaccid, as dead and unresponsive as one of my formalin-pickled specimens.
She asked me why. ‘Are you just nervous?’ she asked. ‘Or gay?’
‘No, nothing like that,’ I said. ‘There’s something special I want you to do for me. Come with me.’
Puzzled, she put on her bathrobe (I donned a lab coat) and followed me to the cellar. Then nervously, up the winding stair, through the trapdoor into the dark space beyond. I lit the candles, and she inhaled in what I hoped was wonder.
Now the attic was an alchemist’s dream: ranks of shelves, some stacked with minerals and fossils, others groaning under dark tomes with marbled covers. Yet more held jars: biological specimens swimming in formalin, vials royal blue with copper, purple with permanganate. A stuffed alligator and tortoise hung from a slanting roof beam. There was a bank of modern circuits with red and green diodes flickering, and another of antique apparatus, all brass, ebonite and gutta-percha, with shellacked copper windings.
‘It’s weird, but all perfect.’ said Jessica. ‘Why go to such trouble?’
‘An ambition,’ I said.
She laughed. ‘You’re crazy. It’s games that turn you on, is it? Just like playing doctors and nurses as kids.’
I smiled. ‘How conventional. No. My dream is of scientist and … ‘ I searched for the word. ‘… and subject.’ With a flourish, I whipped the drapes away from the centrepiece of my laboratory: the bed-frame, now converted with rubber padding and a bed-sheet to a white-draped table suspended like the one in Frankenstein, leather buckles open and waiting.
I had reached that moment we all fear, when we have revealed our darkest side to someone we care about and wait to see if they will run or stay.
‘Will you be my subject?’ I asked.
Her eyebrows raised, but she didn’t flinch. Why should she? I knew her mind already; we are what we watch.
‘Sure,’ she said.
Realities don’t match fantasies. Film heroines are solemn, frightened. Or they faint, and the scientist’s assistant carries them effortlessly to the table. A brief dissolve to some other scene (‘But Sir Henry,’ exclaims the hero. ‘I thought Lucy was with you!’) and then the camera returns to them, lying tastefully draped in a white sheet.
In contrast, Jessica giggled a little as she undressed. The table wobbled like a hammock, and I had to lower one end to the floor for her to stand against it, arms at her sides and legs slightly parted. Several of the straps were at the wrong level (I hadn’t particularly thought about the subject’s height) and I had to bodge fresh holes through the sheet and rubber.
But finally it was done; naked, she stood strapped at wrists and ankles, elbows and knees, waist and forehead. I hauled the table up horizontally again, and everything was right. I put on my goggles, and in my mind Igor was flying kites on the roof, millions of volts were massing in the skies above, and all the electrical tat I’d collected was no mere window-dressing but truly working, wheels spinning, arcs sparking blue and reeking of ozone.
I gazed at Jessica with the intimacy of knowing the name of each corded muscle, each bone in her slight frame. Did Rotwang take advantage of Maria, I wondered? Was Frankenstein turned on by the Bride? I put a tentative hand on her breast, leaned to kiss her deeply. As if a spark of lightning had animated her, she gasped and convulsed in the straps and I felt the thrill of that illicit scientific magic flowing in me.
Finally, I truly was a mad scientist. My groin stirred. ‘It’s alive!’ I yelled.
Maybe that shout gave away our presence. Maybe it was the candlelight showing through the attic window. Whatever the reason, I was not to know a convention was about to work itself out: mad scientists are never allowed to consummate their plans.
Even as I began shedding my own clothes, there was a scraping from the stair. ‘I knew someone must be up ‘ere,’ someone said in a rich Cambridgeshire burr. Then, more sternly: ‘Hoy, what’s going on? Christ, George, look!’
Like the poor Herr Doktor Frankenstein, I realised that men with torches were at my door, and hammering to get in. I turned, covering myself, and squinted into a dazzling beam; the trapdoor was open, faces peering in. A shudder crossed me as I thought of the scene in Mad Love where Peter Lorre is disturbed while manhandling the heroine. Lorre’s character dies when the hero Orlac (Colin Clive again) finds that his transplanted knife-thrower’s
hands can be put to practical use.
But the figures clambering into view resolved merely into the college night-porters. The two could have rushed me then, but they paused, seemingly amazed, at the sight of the room and its Contents.
‘Oh, shit, let me loose,’ Jessica hissed. ‘If my tutor hears about this, I’ll never live it down!’
But I was still absorbed in my new persona. I dashed to the shelves and began to throw at the intruders everything I could lay my hands on.
‘Out, you fools! Must you always destroy what you don’t understand?’ I raged, hailing them with sharp crystals, stuffed animals, jars. Rubbery, fleshy things splattered around them, spraying the stink of formaldehyde. They retreated down the stairwell.
Then, my mistake: I threw one more jar. Glass burst around a cat foetus, the liquid flooded a candle, and I realised this specimen had been preserved in alcohol. A sheet of blue flame zipped across the floor, catching ancient wood and spreading.
Trapped, Jessica screamed and writhed. More flashbacks: at the end of Metropolis, the robot Maria lashed to a pillar, raving and burning. The heroine of House of Wax, nude in the mould with molten wax pouring inexorably toward her. Spencer Tracy’s dream of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, with chained figures wailing in the fire.
This wasn’t what I intended. I came to my senses. Ignoring the flames at my heels, I scrambled to undo the buckles. As I fumbled at the last few, a corner of the tablecloth ignited. Desperately, I dug fingers under the straps, and tugged; my nails broke, my fingertips bled, but the tough leather snapped. I pulled Jessica from the table, shielding her with my body, and carried her to the square hole in the floor where the porters cowered.
They took her from me. One seized me by the arm, but I tore free and dashed back through the flames.
A moment’s freedom. I stood, back to the window. Through a wall of flame I could vaguely see Jessica beckoning to me, draped in a borrowed jacket. One porter started forward, arm shielding his face, but then another of the alcohol-filled jars burst, splattering me with fresh blue fire. Burning, I spun and dived through the window.
Like a film freeze-frame, there was an instant when I seemed suspended, surrounded by flames, shards and ruptured window leading. Then, blazing and torn, I plunged like a meteorite, and the waters of the Cam rose to meet me. Cold burst about me, currents and weed tendrils tugged me this way and that, and then I surfaced in an echoing dark. I felt a ledge, crawled on to it, and lost consciousness.
I wake, chilled and damp. It’s morning, I think. My fingers don’t work properly; the right of my face is charred, roughened. I hear organ music, and crawl mechanically toward it. I am in a tunnel beneath a college chapel (I don’t know which) and through a ventilation grille I can see a young woman practising. The organist plays a chord; she sings a scale, up an octave, then back again. The chord repeats, a semitone higher. ‘Again!’ says the organist in a testy German accent, and the woman sings the scale, shifted up likewise. In the dark, I manage a smile.