In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: songs about ghosts.
The Fall’s Mark E. Smith is a man haunted by ghosts—not just the lingering memories of the many musicians and ex-lovers he’s fired from his band, but also the many tormented souls who walk the cavernous halls of his clattering, still-churning post-punk institution. Over the years he’s sung (or, by his own admission, shouted) about ghosts in manners both serious and playfully metaphorical, as in the band’s popular novelty cover of R. Dean Taylor’s “There’s A Ghost In My House.” But rarely did he capture the spirit of spirits like on “Spectre Vs. Rector,” one of the most unsettling songs the band ever recorded in its prolific 37-year history.
Smith, an avowed fan of writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, structures his nearly eight-minute dirge like one of their classic horror stories, complete with chapter headings. (He also calls them out directly, invoking, “M.R. James, be born be born / Yog Sothoth, rape me lord”—a reference to Lovecraft’s creation—as an opening incantation.) Over a growling, dingy bass—the song’s own cobwebby madhouse atmosphere achieved by recording it in an abandoned warehouse, then having Smith overdub his own vocals to create a delirious echo—Smith revisits a common-to-The Fall theme of possession, telling the tale of a specter from the town of “Chorazin,” the cursed village near Galilee where medieval priests expected the Antichrist to be born (as referenced in James’ story “Count Magnus”), and the innocent clergyman whose form he assumes.
In the rector’s body, the specter ably defeats an intervening detective—crying, “This is your fall! I’ve waited since Caesar for this!”—but he’s eventually undone by an entering hero, a “strange man” who hails from the mountains and claims to have “saved a thousand souls,” but only by selling his own to the devil so that, when the specter finally enters him, he finds “the possession is ineffectual.” From there this hero departs back to his hole, a savior who’s nevertheless shunned as “unclean” by a stupid world who fears that which it doesn’t understand.
Though it’s more linearly structured than many of Smith’s lyrics, even boasting a clearly defined narrative structure, “Spectre Vs. Rector” is still something of a rambling scrawl, more about the suggestion of atmosphere and the plumbing of shadowy nooks and crannies of gothic detail than telling a complete story. But buried in the context of the music—which creaks and plods ominously through a dank mist, suddenly swoops to the foreground when the action picks up, then screeches to a cliffhanger stop—it’s a perfect realization of the threat inherent in every ghost story, as well as in every Fall song: that of the barely glimpsed, chaotic otherworld, hiding just behind the familiar.
Here's a YouTube video of the entire Dragnet album. "Spectre Vs. Rector" starts at 33:50.