Vampires in San Nicola Arcella, the horror that bewitched Lovecraft

With the arrival of summer, like every year, all along the northern section of the Statale 18, from Praia a Mare to Cetraro, the traffic jam of anarchist tourist presences makes its debut. Those that escape statistics and controls, they mean super-submerged economy, endless pollution and abusiveness, traffic jams, stalls and promenades that become a kind of Piedigrotta at all hours of the day and night.

Who can enjoy the view of the Gulf of Policastro. Maybe from one of those fuchsia or pea-colored cottages that peek out from monstrous Bridge Villagea stack of spooky concrete cottages with a view on the bay of San Nicola Arcellawhich legend says built with Maradona’s money.

Writer Francis Marion Crawford

Grand Tour: bewitched by the north of Calabria

Nothing like mass tourism is capable of marking changes in culture and customs. These magnificent coasts of northern Calabria, once not so far from ours, were the elective place of the slightly swooning myth of the foreigners of the Grand Tour hunting for wild nature and breathtaking views.

Here they got out the Scotsman Craufurd Tait Ramage and the best known and itchy Norman Douglas. But, above all, in these parts lived the eccentric and very rich American writer Francis Marion Crawford. Not just any character, even if the name of Crawford (1854-1909) today would say little even to the most learned and shrewd reader. This author who appears only in antiquarian catalogs and in reprints of minor publishers of horror and fantasy serieswas one of the most curious and unusual cases in popular literature of the late nineteenth century.

Crawford was an incredibly prolific and versatile story writer, of great craft and enormous success. But also eccentric and mysterious man. Outstanding polyglot (he spoke 11 languages) scholar of exotic cultures and sui generis ethnographer, but also a man of the world, an excellent sailor and adventurous traveler, a lover of esotericism and the occult sciences, a skilled fencer and architect. At the height of an intense and extravagant existence, burned down in just 55 years, his 44 novels were a tremendous success between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

Author of the first book in English on the mafia

During his lifetime, his popularity and fortune as a storyteller reached legendary heights. Already his first novel, the Anglo-Indian Mr. Isaac (1882), had an immediate success with the public, and Crawford immediately followed it up the following year, translated into 23 languages. His career from then on was a crescendo, until sudden death occurred in 1909 in Italy, in Sorrento.

It was he who wrote the first English novel about the mafia known, the anthropological The masters of the South (The Rulers of the South, 1900). Crawford with the somber and imaginative pen managed to earn great fortunes, along with the admiration of the public and a celebrity that he got on his nerves. With one best seller after another it was in fact the nabob of literature evasion of the early twentieth century.

On a boat with Joseph Conrad

In love with the sea and the sailingOn his cruises to the South, Crawford was often accompanied by the beautiful American wife Elizabeth Berdanfrom Sarah Bernhardt (for which he had written the play in 1902 Francesca from Rimini), by the Danish painter Henry Brokmann-Knudsen and a few other writer friends from the British colony, such as Norman Douglaswho will remember Crawford in his own Business cards. Sometimes he also accompanied him on cruises to these places in the South Joseph Conradwith whom ours, who was a long-term captain in the American navy, alternated at the helm of “The Alda”, one schooner with three masts, “big and beautiful” that the writer himself, an expert navigator, flew from the Atlantic to Sorrento, and then down to San Nicola Arcella.

It was during one of these longs detour to the south that Crawford discovered the extreme southern arch of the wide inlet bounded by a ridge of rock that opens between the island of Dino and the Gulf of Policastroin San Nicola Arcella, in Calabria.

The writer’s tower

An old bastion tower that “emerges isolated from a rock hook”, square and gloomy, faced the sea and the storms, dominating a stretch of coast at that time deserted and lonely, where “not a single house can be seen within three miles.” The landscape bewitched him, and Crawford found an extraordinary source of inspiration in this wild and uninhabited part of the coast. As he had done in Sorrento, he decided to take up residence in San Nicola to settle arms and luggage right in the tower which, abandoned and almost reduced to ruins, reigned over the bay.

For a paltry fee she rented from a local owner, a certain Alario, the gloomy and spectacular one coastal tower built by the Spaniards in the 16th century to keep the pirates away, and restored it. And it was precisely in this strange residence of his choice that Crawford, year after year, took refuge to write almost all of his best-known literary masterpieces. He wrote you stories of ghosts, mysteries and vampires like The witch of Prague, The upper bunk And The screaming skull.

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The writer Francis Mario Crawford in his study inside the tower of San Nicola Arcella

He was locked up for months in the scenic bastion, isolated in a small studio with libraryliving in solitude in the tower, between the bare walls, abandoned by the times of the Spaniards to the winds and to sinister rumors of a haunted place. A truly perfect place to imagine the plots of his horror and fantasy stories. Crawford himself recalls in his diaries the astonishment felt in discovering a clear spring of water on the rock, good to drink, right next to the tower, and the subsequent construction of a well that greatly frightened the population of the village, extremely superstitious about to the fame that the tower had as a place of calamity and misfortune.
In 1911, two years after Crawford’s death, a collection of supernatural stories entitled For the Blood is the Life and other Stories. Among these eight stories of «wandering ghosts“, Because blood is lifewhich gives the collection its title, is set within the walls of this bewitched and remote hermitage on the shores of old Calabria loved by Crawford.

One of the best horror stories according to Lovecraft

Because blood is life was considered by HP Lovecraft one of the best vampire tales ever written. Its peculiarity lies in the fact that the story, written by Crawford perhaps in 1908, a year before his deathtakes place practically live, just between the rooms of the tower of San Nicolafrom the cast of local characters, among the fascinating and bewitched natural scenarios of that fortress long inhabited by the “American”, who drew for this sort of Calabrian “ghotic tale”, apparently an accredited popular superstition of San Nicola.

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American writer HP Lovecraft

Vampires in San Nicola Arcella

For these particularities “Because blood is life” is, of its kind, a masterpiece, “one of the absolute best tales of the folkloric vampire of tradition” (HP Lovercraft), among dozens of other vampire tales that in the the first decades of the twentieth century repeated wearily the themes of Stoker’s literary Dracula. Here Crawford debunks all the clichés that these supernatural beings want to haunt only the misty moors of England or the black mountains of Transylvania. The plot was dictated by the numerous folkloric knowledge of the American writer, who will know how to mix the gothic atmosphere with the popular beliefs of the place.

The old Alario of the tale was none other than the owner of the tower rented by Crawford, the legend of ghost of Cristina it was a superstition collected first hand in the village, the characters realistic, while the sinister Crawford bastion was considered a place forbidden by local taboos. A terrible murder is the backdrop to a story of morbid passions and money. Two thieves steal the trunk with the fortune accumulated abroad by the old Alario, leaving his son Angelo in poverty. To do this, they kill a servant, the gypsy Cristina, a mysterious girl who had seen them hide the treasure.

After Alario’s death, Angelo, humiliated and poor, is attracted by the ghost of Cristina, transformed into a vampire, with which she joins in the place where the thieves buried her. While alive Cristina, a mysterious and sensual creature who has the cursed charm of the fatal gypsy, she has always been in love with Angelo, but he never returned her. Dead, as a vampire, she is irresistible, and Angelo lets herself be vampirized erotically by her, until Antonio, “a little creature similar to a gnome”, the bizarre servant of the storyteller (Crawford himself)with the help of the old village priest they will fight against the curse of Cristina, who is finally defeated and killed with the usual heartbreaker.

San Nicola Arcella, the tower and the writer

In the tower of San Nicola, Crawford wrote, among other things, the final chapters of the last book, The diva’s ruby, one of his most beautiful novels. As if to testify that his work as a writer of romantic and gothic stories was really well concluded only in that place, in an atmosphere so full of inscrutable suggestions. The manuscript of The diva’s ruby, preserved in the Houghton Library of Harvard College (gift of his daughter “Countess Eleonora Marion Crawford Rocca”), seals the circumstance. With solemnity Crawford at the end of the work took up the pen and, witnessing the deep bond established with his alchemical tower, with the characters and the surrounding places, he let the ink write the sluice: Francis Marion Crawford, San Nicola Arcella, 6 September 1907.

Crawford’s walk to San Nicola Arcella

Today very little remains of the landscape and enchanted places that “the American” had chosen to live and write. Here once upon a time the landscape was that of the magnificent and untouched stretch of coast that goes from Castrocucco, on which the mountains of Maratea, up to San Nicola Arcella. A very blue sea dominated by the island of Dinodotted with islets and rocks, with beautiful coves and the small bays of the Arco Magno, which overlooks a small lagoon where the sea is cooled by spring springs of fresh water. A narrow mule track passed on the arch leading to the cave, where today it has collapsed. It was the Crawford promenade, on the old road connecting the Taverna dell’Orco and Fonte del Tufo. The nemesis of the contemporary is fulfilled on the places immortalized in the fantasy pages of the magical Crawford.

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Arco magno beach in San Nicola Arcella

The besieged tower: villas, discos and nightlife

The tower is now besieged by the nearby disco-bars, clubs and neighborhoods of summer villas crowded in every corner on the marina of San Nicola Arcella. All around the upside-down landscape of tourist villages and second and third houses for the sea. Included the famous exaggerated villas with adjoining private cove of Calabrian politicians which are held here in the summer season, and near Crawford Tower discos pump at full blast the nights of the local nightlife. On the spur of San Nicola today there is a viewpoint reduced in very sad conditions of decay.

The plants of the Mediterranean scrub are dry or burnt. In their place a pile of rubbish and plastic bottles, litter and waste of all kinds. The Tyrrhenian highway, the SS 18, unloads day and night on the crowded marinas between Praia a Mare and Diamante, the chaos of a hit and run, forgetful and smashing tourism. Other vampires, escaped from the plots of his literary exorcisms, here have wreaked havoc on what was Crawford’s paradise.

Vampires in San Nicola Arcella, the horror that bewitched Lovecraft