Tell Me Strange things: The Life and works of Montague Summers


When I was a small child I suffered from night terrors. I’d wake up my parents with gut wrenching screams, trembling all over, staring at my open closet with a conviction the made my mothers blood run cold. She would calm me down by praying. After the sobs had died and the teared dried, I would eventually return to sleep, only to repeat the process the next night. She says of that time that the look of horror on my face convinced her of some dread must be plaguing my nightmares. Some dread that neither of us can recall exactly.
               I grew up hearing strange things, my aunt who saw a devil playing with her shoes, an Uncle, alone in an old water bed awoke to hear a woman softly humming, and hands running through his thinning hair. He blamed it on our d&d games, we blamed it on his brand of beer, my father used to hear footsteps in kitchen tile in the middle of the night, but never found anything or anyone amiss upon investigation. I assume all families have stories of strange things. Things not impossible, but strange, incomprehensible, and in some cases, terrifying.
               At the age of 24 I began work at a 3rd shift bakery next to a 6’2, 280 lbs eccentric academic that insisted on being called “The Fat Man”. Below his bespectacled face he wore a trimmed mustache and a perpetual sly grin that made you think he was always up to something. He would fill his nights with strange songs, and a boyish giggle that would reverberate through his entire body. When listening he would cock his head as if hearing for a birds call, he would promptly register what you were saying, and almost never forget it no matter how mundane.
               He told of strange things. Into the wee hours of the morning we shared the works of Lovecraft, Poe, and Blatty, among others. He spoke of writers and names I had never heard before. He talked of a man who wore a priest’s cassock in public, rumored to have practiced pederasty, and believed whole heartedly in Vampires, Werewolves, and Witches. He styled himself Reverend Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers, but he is known more widely today as Montague Summers.   
 
Montague Summers was born the youngest of seven children of a rich banker in Clifton, Bristol. Strange and eccentric, possessed of a voracious intellect and insatiable curiosity. He was raised a Plymouth Brethren, an austere Christian sect that many listeners may note also produced the infamous Alister Crowley. Sometime after leaving for Trinity College in Oxford Summers converted to Anglo-Catholicism and began to pursue a religious career, becoming a Deacon and serving churches in Bath and Bristol. Owing to scandal and his growing interest in the occult, Summers was never considered for higher orders and soon left the Anglican Church for Roman Catholicism after which his story gets a little murky. According to Summers he was ordained a priest in a small diocese in Italy though which diocese and where remains a mystery and no formal documentation proving he was ordained has ever been produced. It was during this time, before becoming Anglican, that a curious story emerges which would have an immense impact on Summers life. While in Belgium, Summers attended a black mass, what he saw there, though it was never told, propelled him into holy orders and into his scholarly works that would define his career.
Dressing in a black cassock and black shovel hat which covered his long graying hair, with buckled shoes. He would often don a cape in the manner befitting a priest from a century before and haunt the streets of Oxford with a silver topped cane depicting Leda, in the form of a swan, being ravished by Zeus. Friends say he was often seen in the street with either a large black dog or a young boy in tow but never both, indicating this was his familiar. Other times he would be seen leaving the British Museum reading room with a black portfolio with the legend “VAMPIRES” written in blood red upon it. He seemed a man plucked out of a different age, his high-pitched voice and perpetual smile did not seem to fit his rounded morose face which often hid his outrageous wit. His friends wondered out loud if he himself was in league with the Devil and if the reason he knew so much about The Black Mass was because he performed it. Characteristic of Summers, he did little to assuage their curiosity and seemed to delight in impropriety of the notion.
Though he first gained notoriety for his work in the restoration of 17th century English drama, and later for his scholarly work on the Gothic Novel. It was his publication in 1926 of The History of Witchcraft and Demonology for which he is largely remembered today, followed shortly after by The Geography of Witchcraft in 1927. He would go on to translate the Malleus Maleficarum or witch hammer, a 15th century text on hunting witches as well as The Discovery of Witches by the infamous Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins.
A subject long neglected by historians as an embarrassing side not of the middle ages, Summers not only wrote prolifically about the historical cases of Witchcraft, he whole hearted believed every word of it, a fact that became clear to the readers of his own day, which he was ridiculed for. He went on the write several books about Vampires, one about Werewolves, and one on the physical phenomenon of Mysticism.
His writings on such subjects as Vampires give the modern read a reliable insight into the mind of someone who truly and deeply believed in such terrible creatures. Say what a sceptic might, if Summers was not able to convince you of the existence of the Supernatural, he could easily convince you of what was like to believe, as our ancestors and some moderns do today, in the strange and unexplainable. He viewed himself as a refugee from the 18th century, espousing belief in Vampires not as an antiquated superstition, but as a terrifying reality. Witches not as the harmless victims of hysteria and delusion, but as individuals in league with Satan. In many respects Summers played the classic Witch Hunter to Alister Crowley’s public and often comical portrayal of a modern-day witch. In a strange twist of history, Summers and Crowley would meet while both lived in a town of Richmond, and greatly admired each other, despite their radically different stands on the occult.
               His style of writing about the occult often calls back to an age that even then viewed the Witch and the Vampire with skepticism-The Age of Reason- saw a Vampire panic that drew the attention of writers like Voltaire. Summers view was often that of his subjects, the Witchfinder General, condemning the evil found around him, and purifying the community with a cleansing fire. Or that of the common peasant who told and dealt with strange things far from the halls of power in the small towns and villages of Europe, places where the dead rose to drink the blood of the living, where men turned into beasts and feasted on their neighbors’ flesh. Where witches preyed upon the townsfolk, specters troubled their dreams, and black dogs covered their path. A world in which fairies lived in hills and trees and were to be feared and respected. The living nightmares historians often label as “Folklore” and “Superstition” were to these men and women, a horrifying reality.
Yet in this reality Summers found a kind of poetic beauty to be searched after or admired. Writing:
“He imagined and elaborated a medievalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood.”
               More important to his work than his views, however, was the primary documents which Summers produced to back up his work, showing the movement of history from the small towns of England reverberating into the halls of power. He sites the trial, torture, and execution of Gellis Duncan in 1590. This trial caught the attention of King James the 1st of Scotland who took an interested out of personal preservation, believing he would be the victim of assassination by witchcraft, he went so far as to personally interview one of the fellow women Duncan accused. What is of note though, is not all of King James suspicions where pure paranoia, as it was found that his cousin, Francis Stewart had placed a curse on the King with the help of the Devil himself. His curse and uprising would subsequently fail, and in the aftermath King James of Scotland would become king of England and produce the King James Bible as well as another little-known book which Summers took an interest in-Demonology.
               But for Summers, a man already ill fit for the 20th century, seemed to disintegrate at the splitting of the atom. As the bombs rained down on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, Summers countrymen and most of the old world he inhabited, horrified by the monstrosities of the modern age and pummeled by the intellectual philosophy of the new religion, modernity, began to abandon the faith he held so dear. To him, faith, like the monsters he espoused, was real and tangible thing. It lurked, sometimes out of reach, often unseen, in the hearts of all men in all ages. And for his fidelity to faith he was largely abandon and ignored. His final works reflected his intellectual decline, often reworking whole tracks of his earlier masterpieces into new books under a different title. He was criticized for lack of discernment in his sources, taking little to not time to filter different accounts into his work. Today his often thought of, if remembered at all, as an eccentric academic with shaky clerical credentials, and so often a heckle raised to his espousing the reality of Witches. However, if you were to open The History of Witchcraft and Demonology we find this curious opening passage:
“In the following pages I have endeavored to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organization inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counsellor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age.”
When defined in so broad a manner, one might be tempted to say that though they may not kill babies and drink their blood, or use their fat to fly around on brooms, under this definition the modern age has produced many a witch and warlock. Indeed, the very things Summers demonized as evil, the very things that defined the philosophy of the witch became the social and political fashion of the day. No longer did men and women need to sell their souls to the devil, society had done it for them.
Montague Summers died August 10th, 1948 at his home in Richmond at the age of 68. Much of his work, as well as his name, faded into obscurity. Unlike his contemporary, Alister Crowley, Summers had no one dedicated to publication of his books for posterity, his papers became lost, his autobiography remained incomplete. His grave was left unmarked for nearly 40 years before the Summers Project finally gathered enough donations to erect a head stone. On it was etched a phrase he would utter to people upon their first meeting… “Tell me strange things” 
From the small beginnings of a frightened child alone at night, I would never have known how deep the rabbit hole goes to go nor how dark it gets. The Fatman’s pernicious grin no longer lightens up my nights at the old bakery, his eccentric songs no longer fill the air around me. The strange stories once told me to by relatives and friends, said in half whispers on nights when the moon dared not shine, have now become mine own. Now days, when that dark Spector sally’s forth from my blackened closet, I can no longer cry out to my mother, who would not come running anymore anyway, neither to my wife, who would likely have me institutionalized. I call out to the only mother who might still listen, as Summers must have. Mary full of grace, a prayer half remembered. In the hopes that Divine Grace may save me from what science cannot.
My name is Matthew William Motsinger and you’re listening to Devilry. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade studying the strange things that go bump in the night. From phycology, Occult studies, FBI reports, History, Folklore, and superstition; in the coming episodes we will take an in depth look at Jungian psychology, explore satanic ritual abuse of the 1980’s, delve into Vampire Cults in Poland, explore the connection between the skin walkers of the American Indians with the French reports of werewolves in the old world and the new. The well of exploration is endless, the subject matter, daunting. My aim? To follow in the footsteps of the Legendary Reverend, albeit with different platform. To shine a light on the monsters around us, among us, and in us. 


Bibliography 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montague_Summers

The History of Witchcraft and Demonology by Montague Summers 

The Vampire: His Kith and Kin by Montague Summers

The Werewolf by Montague Summers

Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger
Montague Summers: A bibliography by Timothy D'arch Smith

Montague Summers: A memoir By Joseph Jerome