Fiends in High Places – Frank McNally on Walpurgis Night in New York and Donegal
An Irishman’s Diary
The writer had been climbing near the summit of Mount Errigal “when I first saw the Brocken Spectre (a curious shadow caused by a trick of mist and sun) as I emerged from the cloud into bright sunshine”. Photograph: Declan Doherty
Set on the last night of April in a year unspecified, Ogden Nash’s A Tale of the Thirteenth Floor is the humorous but moral story of a New York criminal’s conversion to the path of righteousness.
It takes place in a seedy hotel in midtown Manhattan, where the unnamed mobster jams a gun into the belly of the Max, the elevator boy, and demands to be delivered to the suite of one “Pinball Pete”, with murderous intent.
Max affects to comply but first suggests they stop on the way up, at the 13th floor. The would-be assassin counters that, as with many US hotels, this one doesn’t have a 13th floor: the lift numbers go straight from 12 to 14. But Max explains that once a year – Walpurgis Night – the elevator can and does stop in between.
Thus he brings his guest on a Dantesque tour of the damned guests who stay there, explaining: “The path they trod led away from God,/And onto the thirteenth floor/Where those they slew, a grisly crew/Reproach them ever more.”
Nash’s poem is a modern take on the myth of Walpurgisnacht, the eve of St Walpurga’s Day (May 1st), which in much of central Europe is a springtime version of Halloween.
A night of supernatural mischief-making, it is associated with high places, and one place in particular. The central event, according to folklore, is a Satanic convention of witches held every April 30th on the Brocken, the highest of Germany’s Harz Mountains.
No doubt that will have to take place via Zoom this year, like everything else. But the Brocken’s dark reputation extends beyond the annual witch seminar. The mountain has also lent its name to a weird – yet fully natural – phenomenon that can be seen in similarly high places anywhere, at any time of year. As explained in these pages by the late Brendan McWilliams, the “Brocken Spectre” is an optical effect caused by a low sun projecting onto a bank of cloud or mist. An observer of the “spectre” is seeing only his or her own shadow, but in a larger, triangulated version, and sometimes with an aura around it, which looks otherworldly.
The altitude and weather conditions of the Brocken may be especially susceptible to producing it. But the Brocken is not much higher than some Irish mountains and, since we have no shortage of cloud and mist either, the effect can be seen here too.
Indeed, I found a vivid description of it in our archives, from 1970, on Donegal’s Mount Errigal. The writer had been climbing near the summit “when I first saw the Brocken Spectre (a curious shadow caused by a trick of mist and sun) as I emerged from the cloud into bright sunshine”.
And it’s funny he should mention Errigal because, back in Ogden Nash’s hotel, by a spooky coincidence, a man from that same corner of Donegal features prominently on the 13th floor’s guestlist. Among several verses listing a homicidal Who’s Who of early 20th-century New York, there is this: “Here’s the bulging hip and the foam-flecked lip/Of the mad dog, Vincent Coll/And over there that ill-met pair,/Becker and Rosenthal,/Here’s Legs and Dutch and a dozen such/Of braggarts bullies and brutes,/And each one bends neath the weight of friends/Who are wearing concrete suits.”
Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll had been born Uinseann Ó Colla in the Irish-speaking Gaoth Dobhair of 1908. His family emigrated to the US when he was a baby. Thereafter he was expelled from several reform schools on the way to a short but extremely violent career in crime.
First he was an enforcer for the mobster Dutch Schultz before forming his own gang and declaring war on his former boss. Many murders later, but still only 23, he ended up on the wrong end of a Thompson sub-machine gun, probably hired by Schultz, who sent a funeral wreath signed: “From the boys.”
Schulz himself met a similar end aged 34, hence their joint residency in Nash’s hotel.
Nash, by the way, died 50 years ago next month, on May 19th, 1971.
His talent for comic rhymes, often facilitated by wilful misspellings and an anarchic disregard for meter, made him probably the most loved American poet of the 20th century.
A Tale of the Thirteenth Floor is unusual for him in that it both rhymes and scans, conventionally. It even has a conventional moral. The gunman sees the error of his ways, thanks to Max, and rides the elevator down again without committing murder. He rides alone, however. It turns out that Max has already killed Pinball Pete, for his own reasons, and is staying behind with Mad Dog and the rest.