The Remarkable Mr. Russell Hunter

Of all the notable – and macabre – people whom Mani and I have met over the years, Russell Hunter likely stands as the most fascinating.

Russell, who died in 1996 at the age of 67, saw himself as a playwright first and foremost, a composer and musician second, a horror aficionado third and a collector of bizarre curiosa fourth. It was, not surprisingly, his affection for horror that initially drew us to him in the mid-1980s, after a friend of Mani’s introduced us to him.

His primary claim to fame came as the source of the story – officially he got “story credit” – for the outstanding 1980 haunted house film “The Changeling,” a classic to countless horror freaks and a movie so successfully spooky that Stephen King wrote of it at some length, and in a most complimentary tone, in Danse Macabre.

The legendary George C. Scott starred in the film, playing the role which Russell claimed he played himself in real life. While the film was set in Seattle, near a fictional “Chessman Park,” Russell’s haunting took place in Denver, in a now-demolished house near the very real Cheesman Park.

George C. Scott (left) and Russell Hunter (right), fictional and non-fictional hauntees respectively.

 

I won’t go into plot spoilers here, but the real life hauntings Hunter said he experienced were so frightful that he was eventually forced to flee the Capitol Hill house in which he once lived. He would later say that a diamond dust mirror that he took with him provided a portal for the little boy’s troubled spirit that followed him to his new home in southeast Denver, and ultimately stayed with him thereafter.

Russell’s tale of this boy-ghost was originally told in a musical he wrote, Little Boy Blue, which was never produced. He later wrote it as a novel, which also didn’t sell, but somebody in Hollywood somehow got wind of it, hence the movie.

At first, Mani and I simply wanted Russell to take a look at a short story we had just finished, entitled “An Autumn Friend,” which he was kind enough to read, offering both positive and constructive criticism, revealing in the process an amazing knowledge of golem-like scarecrows and harvest imagery in horror literature – a dark and esoteric field if ever there was one.

The actual (left) and cinematic (right) Changeling Houses.

Thus began a friendship that lasted several years, usually consisting of visits to Russell’s home where he often performed something quite beautiful on his grand piano, graciously offered strong drinks and then, with his glass and omnipresent cigarette in hand – in the strangely shadowy and Victorian atmosphere of his otherwise mid-century modern home — he would regale us with stories.

And such stories!  Russell was a raconteur’s raconteur. Many of them were difficult, if not impossible, to believe. Many were undeniably true. Most had something to do with the macabre or outré.  All of them were utterly fascinating, so it didn’t really matter whether they were true or not.

Russell told stories of the old manse in which the events of “The Changeling” took place, accounts of ectoplasmic manifestations he had personally witnessed, legends of Confederate gold hidden somewhere on the antebellum Virginia estate his aunt still owned, tales of a purported visit to that same estate by Edgar Allan Poe shortly before the author’s death, and of a packet of hidden manuscripts that Poe is supposed to have hidden somewhere in the dark reaches of the house.

Russell had quite a Poe fixation, which explained his excellent collection of rare Poe editions, only a small part of a remarkable library in his basement. He even wrote a novel with Poe as the central character, based on the hidden manuscript legend associated with the Virginia estate. He titled it, cleverly, Appropoe, and allowed me to read it.  It was quite good and I sincerely wish that I had secretly made a copy of it, since it’s almost certainly lost by now.

He also had some truly unbelievable oddities stored away in that house of his. He had a bed that he fervently believed Abraham Lincoln once slept in, a Victorian-era child’s tombstone that he said was dug up on his old Capitol Hill property and the infamous diamond dust mirror through which a youthful ghost was allegedly able to travel.

Like a rubber ball, you come bouncing back to me . . .

There was a photograph of Russell and George C. Scott together, taken during the filming of “The Changeling,” and any number of artifacts from that movie and the ghost upon which it was based – the unutterably spooky antique wheelchair, an ancient photograph of the boy who haunted Russell, even the same rubber ball that so terrified Scott in the film, as it bounced with ominous leisure down the stairs of the haunted mansion.

 

 

Mani and I were very saddened to learn of Russell’s death in 1996. In his honor, we composed a short story, “The Collector,” whose protagonist is largely based on Russell. Although our Adrian Constable is considerably more eccentric than even Russell was, we think that we captured something of his unique and wonderfully bizarre personality in the portrayal. (That story, by the way, can be read on this website).

Shortly after Russell’s death, I received permission from his family to purchase a few items from his eclectic estate. I purchased a book or two, and was overjoyed to see that a particular piece of art that I remembered was still there.

I don’t know the title of the work, nor the artist, but clearly remember that Russell told me that he had purchased it at a garage sale from a woman who said that her son had painted it – the day before he committed suicide.

(This might be one of Russell’s tall tales, I concede. I soon discovered that the picture I obtained is not an original painting, but a photographic reproduction, which casts some doubt on the suicidal artist story . . . but, as always, it’s a great story!)

It depicts a derelict (but possibly still spinning) carousel beneath a stormy sky, with horses that are demented or dying or terrified or perhaps something even more awful. It’s quite expertly done and extremely effective as visual horror. I’ve creeped out any number of people by showing it. I remember Russell saying that he originally placed it on his bedroom wall, opposite his bed. It so terrified him, however, that he couldn’t sleep, so he placed it at the head of the bed, where he didn’t have to see – or ponder – its nightmarish vision.

(For the record, I have it in my study, where it provides considerable inspiration for Mani and myself as we strive to conjure our own monsters).

In any case, here it is, in all its sinister glory. I would be extremely happy if anyone out there could tell me anything at all about it. And I’m sure that Russell’s specter would find it equally pleasing.

Ghost Blogger Dora Sigerson Shorter: All Souls’ Night

ALL SOUL’S NIGHT

O MOTHER, mother, I swept the hearth, I set his chair and the white board spread,

I prayed for his coming to our kind Lady when Death’s sad doors would let out the dead;

A strange wind rattled the window-pane, and down the lane a dog howled on.

I called his name and the candle flame burnt dim, pressed a hand the doorlatch upon.

Deelish! Deelish! my woe forever that I could not sever coward flesh from fear.

I called his name and the pale Ghost came; but I was afraid to meet my dear.

O mother, mother, in tears I checked the sad hours past of the year that ’s o’er,

Till by God’s grace I might see his face and hear the sound of his voice once more;

The chair I set from the cold and wet, he took when he came from unknown skies

Of the land of the dead; on my bent brown head I felt the reproach of his saddened eyes;

I closed my lids on my heart’s desire, crouched by the fire, my voice was dumb;

At my clean-swept hearth he had no mirth, and at my table he broke no crumb.

Deelish! Deelish! my woe forever that I could not sever coward flesh from fear:

His chair put aside when the young cock cried, and I was afraid to meet my dear.

Dora Sigerson Shorter (1866-1918) was an Irish poetess who could combine the ghostly and the tragic as only the Irish can. Thanks to Vicki McDonald Leppek for contributing this. She found it in Edmund Clarence Stedman’s ‘A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895′.

Guest Blogger Gregory Leppek: ‘The Spooky Church’

Nature and still-life photographer Gregory Leppek contributed this photo of a church at twilight — in our opinion, a masterpiece of macabre mood and eerie atmosphere. In other words, it’s a perfect blend of the horrific and beatific. He took it a few years ago along Colorado’s Northern Front Range.

 

Gregory has studied with some of the best nature photographers around, and his sandals have literally wandered coast to coast in search of those perfect views. See what we mean by checking out his website: www.gregoryleppek.com

Full disclosure:  Greg is my little brother and I’m proud to say that I love his work!

–  Chris