Thursday, June 11, 2015

RIP, Sir Christopher Lee, champion of literature

He was Dracula and Dooku. He was Saruman and Scaramanga.

But actor Christopher Lee, whose death Sunday at age 93 was announced today, was much more than just fangs, blood and bad guys.

“Please don’t describe me in your article as a ‘horror legend,’" he asked a reporter for The Telegraph in 2011.

So, setting aside the cinematic creatures of the night, here are some bookish things you might not have known about Christopher Lee:

1. He was fully or partially fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Russian, Greek, and Mandarin Chinese.1

2. Lee once met educator and ghost-story author M.R. James (1862-1936). The Book of Ghost Stories, an early 1980s volume dedicated to James' works, includes a short tribute to James, penned by Lee. An excerpt:
"Although Mr. James is often mentioned in the same breath as those other famous writers of the supernatural, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, he was, in my opinion, the greatest of them all. He was certainly the most erudite, and his literary style was quite the purest. ... I must just add that for me Dr. James's work is the equivalent in cinematic terms with the films of the French director, Claude Chabrol, who is a also a master of atmospheric invocation, creating situations apparently so ordinary yet by the slightest twist making them frighten you to death!"2

3. There are conflicting accounts about the true size of Lee's home library. (One disputed statistic that gained steamed online in recent years was that he had 12,000 occult books. That seems unlikely.) But, numbers aside, there is little doubt he was an avid reader and book collector.

4. Lee once met J.R.R. Tolkien and was a serious fan and scholar of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It has been reported that he "was such a mammoth Tolkien fan that he re-read the fantasy books every year without fail." In a 2010 interview with Lawrence French of Cinefantastique, Lee said:
"I still think THE LORD OF THE RINGS is the greatest literary achievement in my lifetime. Like so many other people, I couldn’t wait for the second, and then the third book. Nothing like it had ever been written. Other authors like T. H. White and Lewis Carroll invented imaginary worlds, but Tolkien not only invented an imaginary world, he invented imaginary races, which you can easily believe in. And he created very long appendices with all the family trees and the names of the previous Kings and so-forth. It’s quite incredible, really, the scholarship and imagination that went into the writing of it. And what is even more remarkable is that Tolkien, who was a professor of philology, invented new languages."

5. Another author Lee admired was Dennis Wheatley.3 Lee helped bring Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out to the screen in 1968, and it was one of the biggest critical successes in the storied time that Lee and Hammer Films worked together. (Lee, by the way, was the hero for once in that movie adaptation.)

6. Lee shared the same birthday (May 27) and a friendship with Vincent Price, another horror icon who had so many interests beyond vampires and ghouls. Price published books about cooking and antiques, and Lee had a music career that spanned opera and heavy metal, with some history of Charlemagne woven in.

* * *

Finally, here's a photo of Lee in one of his last major roles, as kindly and generous bookshop owner Monsieur Labisse in Martin Scorsese's 2011 film Hugo.

1. Meanwhile, I can count to 20 in Spanish and to three in Japanese.
2. In 2000, BBC presented a four-episode mini-series, Ghost Stories for Christmas, in which Lee portrays James and reads ghost stories to a group of rapt students.
3. Some fun connections: Wheatley had a series of World War II thrillers, featuring a character named Gregory Sallust, that served as an inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond series. Meanwhile, Lee was related, in a way, to Fleming. Lee's mother's second husband was Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, who was Fleming's uncle. That made Lee and Fleming step-cousins.

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