Not that long ago, I wrote about the original Universal Mummy sequels of the 1940s for Unwinnable. Specifically, I wrote about the odd fact that they are (inadvertently) set in the future. You can read the beginning at that link and buy the issue to get the whole story, but the short version is that the first sequel is set contemporaneously, and then the subsequent ones jump ahead by about a generation every movie or two, meaning that, by The Mummy’s Curse (1944) it would be around 1995.

I love that shit, so imagine my surprise when I discover that there’s a movie from 1958, that’s set in 1970, starring Boris Karloff as an aging descendent of the original Baron Frankenstein, who was tortured and disfigured by the Nazis during World War II and who is now continuing his deceased forebear’s experiments. Now compound that surprise with the fact that the movie’s plot concerns a film crew who are shooting a TV special to commemorate “the 230th anniversary of Frankenstein,” and who are using Karloff’s castle so that he can afford to buy an at-home nuclear reactor, which is definitely a thing we had by the ’70s.

If that sounds like a lot, well, you’re not wrong. Crammed into 83 minutes, fully 40 of which are Karloff flipping switches and looking at dials, Frankenstein 1970 feels, at times, like three or four screenplays, none of which were even remotely finished, all jammed together into one movie and then still not finished. I loved it.

What the hell is Karloff’s character’s plan? It is unclear, at best, and he never seems to have even the beginning of an endgame. At one point, when his creature doesn’t yet have eyes, he apparently sends it out to fetch somebody for him, and is then disappointed when it brings back the wrong person.

“You fool,” he says, or something to that effect, “I sent you to bring me Row.”

“Boss,” I wanted the monster to reply, “maybe you forgot, but I don’t have eyes.

Several times in the film, there are what seem to be missing scenes that might illuminate some of the confusion, but unlikely anywhere near all. The 1970 conceit is meaningless outside the existence of at-home nuclear generators, and, frankly, so too is the film crew conceit. Any excuse – up to and including the old saw of their car breaking down in a storm – to get some fresh bodies into the Baron’s castle would have served as well.

Yet, the film crew thing is great, and not just for the metatext of it all. There’s a nicely-shot cold opening that could only ever end with the director shouting cut, in-movie. As for the 1970 idea, it could have been any year at all, including 1958. In fact, working titles for the film included Frankenstein 1960 and Frankenstein 2000.

As it stands, everything looks just like 1958 – or, rather, like 1958’s idea of what an old castle would look like, using sets mainly leftover from John Barrymore’s house in Too Much, Too Soon, the biopic of his daughter Diana, adapted from her memoir.

Karloff, of course, steals the show, reminding us of his range as he is as sadistically sinister here as he has ever been warm and grandfatherly in any other picture. Under some impressive facial makeup and performing a dramatic limp and hunch, he oozes just enough charm to allow you to maybe buy that people wouldn’t just run screaming, while still casting a long, dark shadow over every scene he’s in.

And as for the monster, it’s the coup de grace. Before I even knew that this movie existed, I had seen a shot or two of the monster, and that’s what ultimately made me dig up the further information that was more than enough to justify a purchase. Played by 6′ 8″ actor Mike Lane – who also plays the actor playing the monster in the movie they’re making within the movie – the monster looks a bit like the mummy of an astronaut.

Always depicted in head-to-toe bandages, wrapped around a piece of headgear that makes it look like a robot, the monster is very different than any other Frankenstein monster you’ve ever seen. Lane’s considerable height, towering over even Karloff, certainly helps. Also helping this along is that the Baron apparently just lets it wander around, eyeless, which seems like a very poor way to keep your elaborate secret.

But then, see above about the Baron not being really amazing at planning.

“We got some goblins that’ll kill you, man.”

It’s NaNoWriMo and, for the first time in a year or two, I am not inadvertently participating simply by dint of having so much freelance work on my plate that I write well over 50,000 words in the course of the month – though I do still have a lot of work, so I may crack that number without breaking a sweat anyway.

Instead, I am going to be talking about writing some. Specifically, I will be talking about writing licensed fiction and work-for-hire stuff and how to take inspiration from the movies over at the Johnson County Library Writers Conference. It’s my first time as a presenter at said conference – and my first time presenting online pretty much ever – so I’m more than a little nervous, but you’re all still welcome to come check out one or both lectures/workshops. Plus, there’s lots of other cool stuff going on!

The conference is all online, so you don’t have to be local to the Kansas City metro, and it’s totally free. You can learn more at this here link, and if you want to stop by for my sections, I’ll be talking about writing licensed fiction TOMORROW at 4pm CDT and doing a longer workshop on how to write from movies, rather than for them on Saturday starting at 3pm CDT and running until 5.

The former will be a pretty straightforward talk about how I got into writing licensed fiction (primarily for Privateer Press), its relationship to fan fiction, how it differs from my regular work (and how it’s similar), and what my experience with it has been. The latter will be a more in-depth discussion of both the similarities and differences between film and prose, and how the strengths of one can be adapted to fit the other.

Anyone who has read much of my fiction knows that I draw a lot of inspiration from film, and I at least seem to do an okay job of it. But translating film to prose isn’t a one-for-one process, and knowing how to borrow is perhaps more important than knowing what to borrow.

Both sessions will be recorded and available on the library’s website in the future, if you can’t make it this weekend. In the meantime, I dunno, wish me whatever the Zoom equivalent of “break a leg” is…

The last few days of October found me – perhaps unsurprisingly – very busy, but I had a good month and, ultimately, a good birthday and Halloween, despite some setbacks, and the fact that we are now in the Second Year of the Plague. Even though I was frankly incredibly busy, I managed to watch a lot of movies during the month of October, with an average of just slightly more than half of them being first-time watches for me. Highlights from those include Antlers, Last Night in Soho, The Boneyard, Sweet Home, Fatal Frame, Possession, Seance, and the various Fear Street flicks.

Just in time for Halloween, my story “Screen Haunt” went live at Pseudopod. I’m proud of this one, which was originally published in It Came from the Multiplex by Hex Publishers. And, as always, the folks at Pseudopod did a bang-up job producing the story, with Alisdair Stuart pulling together themes maybe more eloquently than I ever could have in his outro, and Lalana Dara doing a perfect job on the narration.

Over the preceding month, we had a successful Kickstarter for the latest installment of the Iron Kingdoms RPG, for which I wrote… a considerable amount. And we also had a rousing subscription drive for Unwinnable (technically still going through the end of the day), where we unlocked not only a “monsters” themed issue (which I am, to no one’s surprise, thrilled about) but also a Doom issue and more. In fact, we’re only a tiny handful of subscribers shy of the final goal, so if you’ve been on the fence before now, go toss in a few bucks. It’s more than worth it.

On my birthday, in what I can only assume was a gift meant directly for me, my publisher opened an honest-to-Godzilla brick-and-mortar store selling all the best stuff in the world, including big piles of my books. Sadly, it’s all the way out in Petaluma, California, so I haven’t been there yet, but I am sure I will go someday.

For Halloween itself, I had a relatively quiet night with my adopted family, handing out candy, scaring trick-or-treaters, watching House on Haunted Hill, and playing Campy Creatures. On the drive home, I listened to ghost stories read by the mellifluous voice of Vincent Price himself. It was a good night.

Among those who share my predilections, the day after Halloween can be a somewhat dismal prospect. It is, after all, the longest possible time of the year before more Halloween. And yet, we would all do well to remember that Halloween is not the end of the spooky season; it’s the beginning.

We stand now at the gateway of a season in which the days are short, the nights are long, and spirits or branches or spirits that we tell ourselves are branches scratch at the windows. From now until the spring thaw, we are deep in ghost story weather. And we shall all remember Halloween, and keep it in our hearts all year long.

Each tick of the clock brings us ever closer to the Great Event, that grandest of all nights, Halloween. In the meantime, though, there are a few other things that are ticking down, too, and some will be over before that one comes to pass.

For those who have been following along, I’ve been doing a lot of work on the new, 5e-compatible Iron Kingdoms: Requiem books for Privateer Press. These tomes not only bring the classic Warmachine and Hordes setting to 5e for the first time, they also update the setting itself to the way it exists today, in the aftermath of the Claiming – also for the first time. And if you don’t know what any of that means, don’t worry, the books will explain it.

Anyway, the latest installment is currently on Kickstarter and it’s entering its final hours. In fact, as I write this there’s only about a day left. It’s already funded, so at this point we’re just blowing away stretch goals, and while the stretch goal that’s a new adventure written by yours truly isn’t likely to materialize, there’s still some pretty cool stuff within reach. So, if you’ve been on the fence about it, now’s the time to get involved.

Plus, if you head on over to the Kickstarter page and check out the updates, you can get a gander of artist’s renditions of just a tiny handful of the many weird creatures I got the pleasure of designing this time around. And there’s plenty more (and plenty weirder) waiting in the wings where that came from.

And that’s not all. While the Kickstarter for Iron Kingdoms: Borderlands & Beyond closes up shop in about a day’s time, the Unwinnable subscription drive runs through the end of the month. For those who don’t know, Unwinnable is an incredible indie publication that pays its writers and publishes some of the best, smartest crit, essays, and cultural appreciation around – all based on an ad-free model that relies on your subscriptions.

We’ve already done really well on the drive, unlocking the “monster” theme issue that I absolutely had to get unlocked in order to survive, but we’ve still got more cool stuff up our sleeves, including a Doom-themed issue that’s about a minute away from unlocking. Besides movie reviews and my regular column on board games over at Unwinnable, I’ve also written long-form essays on everything from Monster Squad to my love of dungeon crawl games to, most recently, the weird fact that the original Universal Mummy sequels are actually set in the 1970s through the ’90s.

Few other publications would give me such free reign, so if you like reading the random nonsense that comes pouring out of my head, toss a coin to the folks at Unwinnable, who help to prop up such bizarro “journalism” from me and plenty of other incredibly talented writers and artists.

That may be the last you hear directly from me in this space before the one-two punch of my birthday and Halloween, but I’ll be very active on social media over the next few days, and there’s still a whole lot going on, so stay tuned…

The last of these Crestwood House books I found is also the other one that covers a movie I’ve never seen. In this case, that’s Joe May’s 1939 film House of Fear, itself a remake of Paul Leni’s 1928 film The Last Warning, which was an adaptation of a stage play of the same name that was, itself, an adaptation of a story with this film’s title, written by Wadsworth Camp, who was the father of Madeleine L’Engle.

[deep breath]

“The people who bought tickets probably thought they were going to see a horror film,” the authors say in the book, by way of introduction. “They knew that most of the films with similar names took place in haunted houses. In addition, Universal was famous for movies about monsters, vampires, and werewolves.” (Less the werewolves in 1939, since only Werewolf of London had hit screens by then, and The Wolf Man wasn’t coming until the following year, but we’ll let them have it.)

“The audiences must have been surprised,” the authors continue. That seems somewhat unlikely, given the fare that surrounded House of Fear was frequently of this “murder mystery by way of Scooby-Doo variety,” and such old dark house films and plays had been de rigueur for years by ’39. It’s a good way to distinguish House of Fear from the other books in this set, though.

This isn’t a monster movie, nor even a gothic in the House of Seven Gables vein. Instead, this is very much a whodunit, just that the “who” in question wants the characters – just as the filmmakers want the audience – to believe that there’s a ghost loose in the theatre, until the mask is pulled off the proverbial Old Man Withers at the end.

It starts with a murder during a live production of a stage play. Then, the corpse vanishes, as corpses were so often wont to do in these old movies. “A dead body can’t walk away, can it?” one of the characters says. From there, the action jumps forward a year. The theatre has been sitting empty, because anytime anyone tries to put on a play in it, there are ghostly happenings that scare everyone off.

We’re treated to some of these spectral goings-on, such as an impossible phone call from a disconnected phone (“You didn’t talk to anyone on this phone,” the phone company rep tells our lead. “It’s as dead as a graveyard.”) We just hear about others, such as the genuinely creepy story of an actor looking through the keyhole into the murdered man’s dressing room and seeing the body “rolling around on the floor.”

Because this is a whodunit with an ultimately naturalistic explanation (even if they never bother to explain how the bad guys pulled off things like the phantom phone call), we have to establish a number of possible motives for potential perpetrators, while also telling both the story of the detective pretending to be a Broadway producer in order to catch the killer, and sprinkling in the eerie happenings that are meant to convince us there really is a ghost.

All of which means that House of Fear actually feels unusually dense compared to the other books in this set, even though I don’t think it’s any longer.

I’ve seen a lot of people argue that the film itself is a minor effort, especially compared to its silent predecessor, but I love these kinds of spooky whodunits, and the book makes it sound like something I’ll really enjoy, whenever I finally get to see it! Until then, I’ve got this nice little book…

Happy Halloween!

“Frankenstein’s Monster has had more lives than a cat!”

So begins the prologue of the Crestwood House book on Ghost of Frankenstein, the 1942 film that was the fourth in Universal’s Frankenstein series. The authors go on to give us an extremely condensed history of the franchise, starting with Mary Shelley’s novel and continuing through the previous three Universal films, devoting about a sentence to each one. (They also incorrectly identify the Frankenstein of the book as “the mad Dr. Heinrich Frankenstein,” rather than Victor Frankenstein.)

“Was that the end of Frankenstein’s Monster?” they ask, after their recap of 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. “Perhaps it should have been. But the Monster was still selling movie tickets.”

That “perhaps it should have been” may have been intended by the authors as a nod to the tragic – for himself and others – trajectory of the Monster’s life, but given that we’re about the read about Ghost of Frankenstein, it sounds a bit like they’re lamenting that the franchise has staggered on this long.

Indeed, there are several points in the narrative when it seems like the authors’ hearts simply aren’t in it this time around, even though this is one of the volumes copyrighted in 1985 rather than ’87, meaning there were still several more to come. Also, it’s a bit hard to tell whether they were just less into retelling Ghost of Frankenstein or whether that sensation is because, let’s face it, Ghost of Frankenstein is a bit of a hot mess.

Everyone changes their mind at the drop of a hat, the literal ghost of Frankenstein shows up at one point and begs to have his creation not be destroyed which… doesn’t seem in keeping with the events of the previous films, let’s say. And that’s not getting into how this movie really doubles down on the idea that the problem with the Monster is that it has a criminal’s brain – never mind that the Monster is pretty uniformly gentle and good-natured until people attack or betray it.

Which is not to say that the novelization isn’t occasionally able to rise to a kind of poetry, even with its simplistic language. “Now I see,” Ygor says, when lightning strikes the Monster and revivifies it. “Dr. Frankenstein was your father, but the lightning was your mother!” You can virtually hear Bela Lugosi’s unmistakable voice uttering the lines, even if you haven’t watched the movie lately, and even though – as has been the case with most of the rest of these books – the actual lines in the film are subtly different.

Indeed, re-watching Ghost of Frankenstein after reading the book, the authors once again make a host of sometimes inexplicable changes. For example, in the book, it’s Ludwig Frankenstein’s daughter who suggests the rather grisly idea of performing vivisection on the Monster in order to destroy it, while in the movie it is Frankenstein himself who proposes it, and she never offers anything remotely as bloodthirsty.

Once again, perhaps the most striking deviation is left for the (relatively muddled, even on screen) ending, however. The broad strokes are mostly the same, as Ygor’s brain is secretly switched at the last minute and implanted into the monster. However, in the movie we get the explanation that Ygor’s blood type is different from the Monster’s, meaning that the blood won’t feed the sensory organs and leading the “Ygor-Monster’s” sight to fail, before he is ultimately consumed in a fire that destroys the house, as fires are wont to do in movies like this.

The book… makes less sense. “I forgot that the Monster’s blood won’t feed a normal brain,” Frankenstein crows as the Ygor-Monster goes blind in the book. “Ygor’s brain is dying!”

That’s… there’s a lot to unpack there. What does he mean by a “normal brain” in this context? Given that the movie version of Frankenstein’s Monster received a criminal brain, are we to assume that criminals – or possibly the mentally ill – have different blood than other people? And given that Ygor is probably both a criminal and mentally ill, shouldn’t he be fine?

The movie also gives no such indication that Ygor’s brain is “dying,” merely that he can’t see. He dies – or is implied to – when the house burns down, though, of course, the Monster will be back the following year in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

In the movie, Frankenstein’s daughter and her love interest walk silently away from the burning house and into a sunset as the end titles come up. In the book they do that, too, but the authors put some condescending dialogue in the mouth of the male lead. “Don’t look back,” he tells Frankenstein’s daughter. “Your grandfather died in the same kind of fire that has killed your father. Now it is up to us to go on with our lives.”

Sure, guy, that follows.

I am not, generally speaking, here to tell you what to do. But there are exceptions to every rule, and I’m telling you now, if you like the kinds of weirdo reviews, columns, and other nonsense that I write, you want to subscribe to Unwinnable. More than perhaps any other periodical, Unwinnable has been giving me free reign to write about what I want, which usually amounts to random movie reviews and my regular monthly column on board games, “I Played It, Like, Twice.”

But that’s not all I write for them. I’ve written about my relationship with dungeon crawl games, about growing up with The Monster Squad, and, most recently, about the inadvertent science-fiction of the early Universal Mummy sequels. I’ve also written for their sister publication, Exploits, about everything from “Call of Cthulhu” to Turbulence 3 to Hammer’s weird cat-centric proto-slasher, Shadow of the Cat, and beyond.

And right now, Unwinnable is doing their annual subscription drive. And what that means to you, besides a chance to jump on board one of the most exciting publications out there, is opportunities to unlock exciting new content, as the drive continues. Notably, for those who are reading along on this here blog, there are two “theme issues” that can be unlocked if we get enough subscribers. And one of those themes is “monsters.”

As you can imagine, I’m pretty excited about that. I think you might be, too.

But my writing isn’t the only reason to throw your support behind Unwinnable. Hell, monsters aren’t even the only reason (they’re enough of one, though, right?) No, maybe the best reason to subscribe to Unwinnable (or back their Patreon) is that it is a routinely gorgeous publication, put out by smart, cool, thoughtful folks, filled with so much more than just clever and insightful vidjamagames criticism (though there’s plenty of that, too). All funded through an ad-free model that, not to get too NPR on you here, relies on your subscriptions to keep going.

If you follow me on social media, too, you’ll be hearing about this more before the subscription drive is done. For now, though, why don’t you listen to the pumpkin and go subscribe. The pumpkin thinks you should. The pumpkin doesn’t like to be disappointed…

In 1940, Universal made a movie adaptation of Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, with Vincent Price in the good guy role. So times change, is what I’m saying.

(Indeed, he would play essentially the opposing part in the much-abridged version of the story included in 1963’s Twice-Told Tales.)

The Crestwood House book doesn’t tell us that, though. Instead, it introduces itself with this bon mot: “Writers of the 1800s believed their stories should teach lessons about life.” However, the prologue goes on to let us know, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories were “more than sermons against sin. People still read them today for their interesting characters and plots.” (And because they’re assigned to read them in school, but the book doesn’t say that, either.)

Interestingly, given that the other books in this series have tended to shy away from the more lurid, graphic, or violent episodes of their chosen films, this one gives us a nicely vivid quote of the curse placed on Colonel Pyncheon by the man he has accused of witchcraft so he can steal his land: “God hath given him blood to drink!”

In these seven books, there were two for films that I had never seen when I picked them up. In an odd twist, both have “house” in the title. This is the first of them. It feels like I’ve seen it, because I’ve seen Price doing the “House of Seven Gables” story in Twice-Told Tales, but I haven’t seen this version, more’s the pity.

To that end, I can’t tell you how the book stacks up against the movie, though I can say that the working out of the plot, as presented here, is less horror story and more melodrama. And I can say that, in the book at least, the ending feels considerably rushed, to the extent that I was not entirely positive – until looking at the film still that follows “THE END” – whether both couples had gotten married or just the one.

While movies from this era have a tendency to just be like “monster’s dead, the end,” I have a feeling this one probably seems a little less rushed on film than it does in the pages of the book. (Also, there is no monster in The House of Seven Gables, for those who are unfamiliar with the story. At least, not the kind that we’re talking about when we talk about monsters on this blog. There’s just an asshole.)

Around a year ago now, give or take, I was working on a project for Privateer Press that, at the time, I couldn’t talk about. A few months later, it was revealed to be the new Iron Kingdoms: Requiem roleplaying game, compatible with 5e, which launched on Kickstarter in January of this year and blew away its funding goals.

Since then, I’ve been working on something else. A follow-up product that takes players beyond the walls of the Iron Kingdoms themselves and into the wilderness that surrounds them. For those who played the previous IK RPG, this can be seen as a companion to the Unleashed volume released for that game – I wrote an adventure for that, too, BTW, which was printed in the Wild Adventures supplement.

This isn’t just about the wilderness, though. It also explores – in depths that have never really been delved into before – the dwarven kingdom of Rhul and the elven nation of Ios, a nation which has undergone a stark transformation, making it just as alien and unfamiliar to long-term players of the game as it will be to those who are new to the setting.

Called Borderlands & Beyond, this new expansion also just hit Kickstarter today, and was funded within just a couple of hours. We’re already well into the realm of stretch goals now, and the campaign is less than a day old. Which is good, because one of the stretch goals is a new adventure written by yours truly, set to take place in the eerie wilderness of the Glimmerwood.

As with Iron Kingdoms: Requiem, I worked with an incredible team to help bring this book to life, all organized by Matt Goetz, who was the captain of our little ship. I can’t say what parts I did and what parts were the work of other hands, but I can say that, to an extent that has never been true on any previous tabletop gaming product I’ve worked on, we really did collaborate as a team throughout the project, with each person’s contributions informing the others in unique and dynamic ways.

In all, I contributed even more words to this project than I did to Requiem, and got to build more stuff from the ground up than ever before. And I’m already looking forward to the next project, which the success of this one will all-but ensure.

And I can say one other thing, I think, that will likely come as a surprise to no one. If you check out the Kickstarter for Borderlands & Beyond, you’ll note that they mention “a horde of never-before-seen monsters to test every last ounce of your players’ resolve.” The other thing I think I can say is that more than a few of those never-before-seen monsters are ones I helped cook up. And I hope you’re going to love them.

October is the busy season for horror writers. That’s pretty much always been true, and this year is no exception. While the pandemic has put a damper on some of the season’s usual festivities, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still plenty to do.

I’ve been making a couple of appearances and I’ll be making a few more. For the most part, this means social distancing, masking up, doing things outside where possible, all the usual safety measures, even though I am double-vaxxed and all that jazz. But while last year these kinds of activities were functionally impossible, this year they’re happening, just under somewhat less-than-ideal circumstances.

Let’s start with the most pressing item: Tomorrow, I’ll be outside the Afterword Tavern & Shelves in the Crossroads in downtown KC, where I’ll be joined by a bunch of other local authors (including Jason Teal) in hawking my wares as part of their first annual Lit on Grand event. It kicks off at 11 in the morning and goes until we pack it in, so come on down and say hello!

Then, in about two weeks’ time, the Halloween event of the season is happening at the Screenland Armour as Magnetic Magic dusts off not one but two VHS oddities for a very special October #AnalogSunday where we’ll be screening The Boneyard (1991) and Hellgate (1989)! I’ve never seen either one, so I’m really looking forward to this. There’ll also be special prizes, custom intros, and the usual tape trading and other fun analog nonsense.

Finally, I’ll be hosting both a lecture and a workshop (that’s basically a long lecture) at the Johnson County Library’s writer’s conference the weekend of November 5-7. I’ll be discussing how to draw inspiration from movies for your prose writing, and working on licensed properties.

Naturally, other stuff is going on, too. My birthday will be in there (October 30, for those who don’t know) and I’ll be watching other movies and doing other fun stuff. Already this month I’ve knocked out this year’s Nerdoween, and over at Unwinnable, we’ve turned the place into a video store complete with employee recommendations for streaming flicks, with themes chosen by yours truly.