In late 1994 I went to stay with friends in the seaside town of Foxton, in the North Island of New Zealand.
I had been researching a fantasy film script. I'd spent many hours studying the topic: the Kabala, The Golden Dawn Society, Aleister Crowley and serial killers. For some reason I drew a connection between these things. My mind was full of this stuff and while I felt things were going well, I also desperately needed some time out.
Jocelyn and Frank, my Foxton friends, opened their doors to my family and me. I had been to University with Frank where we both trained as archaeologists. Since then, I had become a city boy, while Frank had opted for the tranquil life.
There in Foxton it was easy to see the appeal. Within a week I was ready to explode with calmness, as my two daughters bathed in the salty water, bleaching their blond hair and Ann, my wife, read Anne Rice books on the beach.
About this time I mentioned my fantasy project to Jocelyn and Frank. I brought it up as an excuse for my growing restlessness which seemed in stark contrast to their unnerving beach-combing calmness. Basically, I'm someone who needs to feel life raging around me in order to produce anything. I could happily retire to a quiet farm and grow vegetables, but I certainly wouldn't be able to "create".
Anyway, they made sympathetic noises, and in an effort to perk me up, mentioned a trip they'd once made "up north". They had met a man - some kind of park ranger they thought - who'd told them a strange tale about a "time-trap" he'd witnessed in the forests of the region.
After I stopped laughing I questioned them further. According to his story, he and his colleagues had ventured into an almost inaccessible part of the bush on Conservation Department business and had seen something inexplicable.
In this remote part of the rainforest they had stumbled across the most bizarre earthworks: some sort of huge platform carved out of the rock and clay. Due to the remoteness of the location, there was no apparent way to get earth moving equipment into the area. Furthermore, when they reached the top of the platform everyone present became dizzy and disoriented, and had to step down from it. When the party returned to civilisation with their story, a local Maori told them the area was well known to Maori as a place of power, and he expressed no surprise at their tale.
However, when the Conservation Department officer tried to return to the spot, he was unable to find the platform again. Had they all shared some sort of collective hallucination? Or was his inability to retrace their steps due to his poor compass-reading skills?
After my holiday finished, I went to investigate the story for myself. Sure enough, I found the Conservation Officer, and he confirmed the tale in all its details. What's more, he assured me he was a good compass reader.
His theory was that he had witnessed a 'time trap' of some sort. While I smiled inwardly at this, the man's apparent conviction in his story made me wonder.
He went on to tell me of a local hermit who lived in the region who knew far more about these things than he did. Making me promise I wouldn't tell others about him, (lest his privacy be shattered by tourists), he told me how to contact him. After much calling and pleading, the hermit finally acquiesced to see me.
I found him in a strange old ramshackle house, in an isolated region of native forest. I was freely invited in, despite his earlier reluctance to meet with me. He took me through the dim interior of his dilapidated house to his study.
There on the walls - with their wallpaper now mottled and stained by age - were a number of academic degrees in old glass frames, the most noticeable of which was a PhD in physics from Otago University. Somehow the degrees and citations - now half hidden beneath an age of dust and dead flies - spoke of a previous life to the one the man was now living out. It was hard to reconcile a learned academic with the man I saw before me. He was short, going bald at the front, but with long, grey hair at the back. His clothes were straight out of the 1950's, and by now were showing their age - his cardigan badly fraying at the elbows.
I told him about myself, my research and the story I had heard from the Conservation Officer. The old man chuckled dismissively and told me he thought the Conservation Officer was more interested in telling tales to tourists than conservation work. Although a natural cynic, and not inclined to believe such tales in the first place, I was nevertheless disappointed to hear this.
The old man proceeded to quiz me a little. I told him about what I was doing; "wasting myself on film" was his summation. Only when I told him about my previous training as an archaeologist did he perk up somewhat. He went over to a set of drawers and brought out five black-covered books and placed them on the table.
He mumbled something about the human imagination: that it was a terrifying thing, and yet even it could only imagine half the strangeness of this world. He told me that these books - diaries, really - might prove useful to me.
They had come into his possession a few months ago. On several occasions he had started reading them, only to put them away each time, swearing never to open them again. And yet something had always compelled him to go back to them...
He never told me where he got the books from, but he invited me to peruse them at my leisure on two conditions: one, that the books stayed in his house and two, that I never mentioned his name in anything I did subsequently. 'Fair enough' I said and proceeded to read them, arriving each morning at nine o'clock, and leaving at five.
By the third day I was so keen to start my reading for the day, I was arriving half an hour early. And when five o'clock rolled around, the old man had to practically kick me out the door, I was so engrossed.
The diaries were the recollections of a young anthropologist Harry Ballard (I'm not sure if this was his real name or a pseudonym). While researching the occultist Aleister Crowley he had slowly started to believe in magic. He became convinced that - to borrow Dion Fortune's nomenclature - he was under "psychic assault"; that he was the victim of an attack by a sorcerer.
Were the diaries genuine? Or was the old man simply doing what the Conservation Officer had done - allowing me access to a tall tale? Who knows? Each night he would close the door of his house with a sly smile on his face. But his eyes never smiled. They seemed to speak his motto on life: That while human imagination is great, it cannot contain even half the strangeness of this world.
What struck me about these diaries was that they seemed so utterly genuine. And if this was true, they either described something real or they traced the journey of someone going slowly insane. Both options seemed equally fascinating to me at the time.
Although I have twisted the story to my own ends; added characters and so on, it is those diaries that provided the original inspiration and the spine for the film script "The Irrefutable Truth About Demons".
I will leave you with a verbatim transcript from one of the diaries...
"Last night overwhelming dread as I attempted sleep. 4 grams of heroin did not erode/ change feeling. In sleep the dreams, the same old one, the fear was there and something waiting, on the fringes out of sight, in the shadow edges of my mind's eye, watching me, waiting for its chance. Can't write more, can't stop my hand shaking." Harry Ballard.
Glenn Standring, September 27, 1999
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