Some Stories with Very Little Morals; the Hell-Fire Clubs, a History of Anti-Morality. by Geoffrey Ashe (Sutton Publishing, Pounds 12.99); Danse Macabre. by Aubrey Burl (Sutton Publishing, Pounds 12.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Article excerpt

These two books, both offering descriptions of lives lived on the fringes of polite society, provide fascinating reading.

Geoffrey Ashe's account of the Hell-Fire clubs is probably the nearest we come to the British equivalent of the excesses of the Marquis de Sade (and we have to remember that the inheritance of all this curiously dangerous playing with occult fire was passed on to Lord Byron - mad, bad and dangerous to know).

But then, so was Sir Francis Dashwood and his secret society of 18th century rake-hells known politely as the Monks of Medmenham, who got up to their naughty activities accompanied by 'Nuns' (the slang word for whores) who were dragged in from the 18th century London brothels to make things go with a swing.

Within these strange rituals and initiation rites, there is scope for comparison with freemasonry. But the Dashwood madness could lead on to violent and erotic spectacles which at excessive levels came near to killing certain of the participants.

But the English obsession with the occult, sexuality and demonic power is lost in the mists of legend and would certainly include Merlin and the Arthurian court, although it is not lost so completely that names are forgotten.

Ashe mentions the Duc de Richelieu, French ambassador to Austria in 1727 and a notorious womaniser. Richelieu was spotted riding in Vienna after sunset with a black lamb on his knees. It was assumed that Richelieu was proposing to sacrifice the lamb at the full of the moon in order to increase his virility (thank heaven for Viagra which has certainly decreased the need for black lambs in this country).

'But sorcery was in the air,' as Ashe notes in this fascinating book which reads almost better than vintage Dennis Wheatley. The Comte de St-Germain was busy convincing people he was really 2000 years old and some of them believed it. Memories of Paracelsus and the Elizabethan magus Dr Dee, who drew horoscopes for Elizabeth I was still there in old texts to kindle occult experimentation and so the 18th century clubs were the logical outcome for interested parties who wished to overturn church and state.

Edinburgh had at least one club that arranged pacts with the devil for its members. Old Nick obligingly turned up for a rendezvous with the curious in Jack's Close Canongate, Alan's Close, or Carriden's Close. What the Devil said to those who met him and what they said to him is not recorded.

There were several Hell-Fire clubs in Ireland and one of the best known was in Limerick where a band of rakes were known as the Dublin Blasters and were in the habit of receiving guests stark naked, often remaining longer than usual in the doorways of their town houses, shrieking with laughter at the discomfiture of their visitors and continuing to stand there 'as a show to the people passing by'. For any committed rake it was an extremely enjoyable way of letting the side down.

When rake-hells die, their ghostly coaches apparently still rattle around the Irish countryside, naturally with headless drivers. They terrify the living and produce instant mortification if you look at them long enough.

In a period when the lewd novel Fanny Hill blurred the boundaries for many between what was 'natural' sex or 'perversion', it was logical that the extension of those social concepts would continue to blur the distinctions between white magic and black magic - natural conjuring and satanism. All these foundations laid the groundwork for Francis Dashwood's Hell-Fire Club at Medmanham (in fact, the golden globe on Dashwood's house used to be visible some years ago from the High Wycombe Road, but perhaps no longer today).

Dashwood's lot were known as Franciscans - too much money, too little sense - today it would have been hard drugs and punch-ups in toffs' clubs. …