What began for me as a last minute trip to Washington, D.C. to burn up some rewards miles last week turned into a frantic, intensive study session in a windowless room deep in the Library of Congress once I learned that the Library also happened to be home to a collection known as The Val Lewton Papers. I am, of course, a huge fan of Mr. Lewton (as so many are). The symbolism and classical literacy of the films he produced at RKO were instrumental in inspiring me to look closer at the often neglected theological content buried in popular cinema. So, of course, once I learned that, after a brief vetting process, I could have free access to some of the man’s personal papers, I had to jump at the chance.
After proving my identity to the folks in the main office—the Library of Congress’s collections are open to just about anyone (and I mean anyone, not just Americans) over the age of 18—I wound my way through the series of nondescript tunnels that connect the library’s buildings until I eventually found my way to the Manuscripts Reading Room where I was vetted again and pitched my research to the folks in charge before being allowed access to this particular branch of the library. Once I was officially cleared, I put in my request for the Val Lewton Papers and waited.
After about 10 minutes, five reels of microfilm were delivered to my workstation. Five reels of microfilm don’t really look that impressive in person and, frankly, it is a bit disappointing at first for a nerd like me to I will not be allowed to interact directly with the objects of my fascination. But my disappointment faded quickly once I had loaded the film into the machine and began to wade into the information at hand.
At first, I tried to read everything. Taking notes on what I found interesting and skipping over the rest. But after an hour, no matter how far I advanced the film, the supply of unviewed film seemed the same as when I had started. AND I WAS ONLY ON THE FIRST REEL! It was then that I really began to understand why the Library of Congress policy allows researchers to scan materials for research purposes. I have no idea how many thousands of pages of letters, journals, scrapbooks, and screenplays are included on those five reels, but it was far more than I could have ever consumed in my three days at the library. The best I could do was scan anything that looked remotely pertinent and bring it home to work on here.
So, here we are. I have a flash drive full of Val Lewton documents and only a rough idea what they contain. Now, I can’t simply upload them somewhere for you—there are signs all over the Library of Congress saying that’s not allowed—and besides, that wouldn’t be any fun for me. What I can do is give you a little window into my research process.
With that, let me welcome you to The Lewton Ledger. As I read through this digital stack of documents, I’ll keep you posted of any possible insights or hunches I have as to what made this master of psychological horror tick. So far, I can tell you this much, young Val Lewton was head over heels crazy in love with his wife Ruth. Like, seriously, it’s so cute.
Also, he loved boats.