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“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.)

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is actually pretty well regarded, compared to most of the other films covered in this series. For its novel approach to the material, its lesbian themes, its unusual antagonist, its Gloria Holden, you name it. And unlike the last couple of titles I wrote about, Dracula’s Daughter is one that, while I have seen it, I hadn’t seen it as recently – or as often – as those flicks that got the MST treatment.

The prologue of this volume very briefly introduces us to two very different concepts. First, the historical Vlad Dracula, as the book calls him. “Dracula was a brave leader,” the authors tell us, “but he was also in love with death.” I think we could all hope for such a pithy summary of our lives five centuries after our demise.

However, again according to Green and Sanford, “Few people cared about Vlad Dracula, except for Bram Stoker.” I feel like there are at least a few Romanians who would probably disagree. Anyway, the book continues, Stoker wrote his famous novel in 1897 and it was “wonderfully scary. Everyone wanted to read it!”

The authors use this as a springboard to explaining their second concept, the idea of the movie sequel – there’s a certain charming naivete in assuming that any child old enough to read this book would be unfamiliar with the idea of a sequel. “How could Universal make another vampire movie and still use Dracula’s name?” the authors wonder. “Some clever writers came up with a good answer. They said, ‘Imagine that Dracula had a daughter!'”

From there, the book moves into the realm of recounting the events of the film. At the time I reread it, I hadn’t seen the movie recently enough to make clear notes about what was different or the same, though I have watched it since, but right away the novelization is nicely more atmospheric and suggestive than our last couple of installments, thanks partly to the more gothic nature of the film itself.

The first few sentences of the first chapter, which is entitled “A Body Vanishes,” describe Carfax Abbey. “Overhead, a pale moon was lost behind heavy clouds. A bat circled above the tall towers of the old house.” This is also embellishment, as the film provides no such establishing shot. The story picks up immediately following the events of Tod Browning’s 1931 film, never mind that Dracula’s Daughter didn’t hit screens until five years later.

Edward Van Sloan is back as Professor Von (as it’s spelled here and in the original film) Helsing, who is in trouble with the law because he’s been found with the corpse of Dracula, and nobody seems to believe him that it was just a vampire he staked. In short order, we meet Dracula’s eponymous daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden). “Some fathers raise their daughters to be artists or writers,” she tells our protagonist, played by Otto Kruger. “My father made me a vampire!”

What makes the line, which is one of the better ones in the book, honestly, particularly interesting is that she never actually says it in the movie. In the film, she simply tells him that she’s Dracula’s daughter and lets him draw his own conclusions as to what that means – which, by then, he has already done.

A much longer essay than this could be written about the film’s themes, and how they were cut to ribbons by the Hays Code. Among these are the parallels between vampirism and mental illness – the suggestion that either Countess Zaleska herself or even Von Helsing could simply be delusional. More striking are how the scenes suggesting a lesbian subtext to Zaleska’s actions were cut, despite that same subtext being used to peddle the film, with taglines like, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”

Instead, I’ll leave you with a bit of background from when Joseph Breen, then head of the Production Code Administration, was asked to look over the script of the scene in which the Countess attacks a young model who has come to pose for her. Breen demanded – his wording not taking the form or “should” or even “must” but “will” – that the implication that the model posed in the nude be cut, and went on to say, “The whole sequence will be treated in such a way as to avoid any suggestion of perverse sexual desire on the part of Marya or of an attempted sexual attack by her upon Lili.”

“What’s hidden just beyond the veil? A bloody good time, of course.”

I’ve talked, often and at length, about how what I want to write, when I sit down to write, is “fun horror.” And because of that, I’m often asked in interviews or casual conversation just what I mean by that. The ethos behind it, sure, but also for examples, so I’m always pleased when I find some.

Jonathan Raab is not only one of the best living practitioners we have of the form, he’s also a testament to the fact that “fun horror” can also be smart horror, political horror, character-driven horror, psychological horror, cosmic horror, thinking person’s horror, you name it.

Raab refers to himself as a “hack horror writer,” and that affection for B-grade horror shines through in his work, but he’s never just making lazy pastiches of the slasher flicks that decorated our screens when we grew up. He’s taking the subtext that was often there – or that we saw there, even when it wasn’t – and making it text. Repurposing camp into paranoid, conspiracy-laden, doom-synth chronicles of the secret world behind the world, the scratching at the back of your brain, on the other side of the tube, on the outside of your window as you fall asleep.

As with so many writers I first got to know via social media, I can’t remember how Jonathan and I first met. We were already on friendly terms by the time he solicited a story from me for Terror in 16-Bits, drawn together because we shared a similar set of references, a similar cache of filmic, video game, and tabletop inspirations, a similar set of aesthetic and thematic fixations – yet also different enough to keep things from overlapping too much.

Aside from conventions, I’ve only ever met Jonathan in person once. I was spending some time in Boulder, Colorado – my significant other attending a flute workshop, myself tagging along to explore the environs and write in the hotel room – and I drove down to his house, past a prison, into a setting from a Jonathan Raab story, even though, at that time, I’m not positive I had yet ever read one.

We walked down the street and had a big breakfast at a crowded greasy spoon, then back to his place where we talked all manner of subjects high and low. By then we were already friends – I can’t remember yet if I was a fan.

I wrote a blurb for one of his books, The Lesser Swamp Gods of Little Dixie, but it was his novel Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI that fully sold me. That converted me. As I read those pages – part fictionalized novelization of a late-era slasher movie that never was (or was it?), part conspiracy-laden meta-fictional journal, part cosmic horror – that I realized that Raab had risen to the ranks of one of my favorite working authors, the kind where I would eagerly seek out each new thing he did.

And given that short story collections are about my favorite type of book, well, I was damned excited about the release of The Secret Goatman Spookshow, Raab’s first such collection. I preordered the book, but I forced myself to wait to read it until we were nearing the Halloween season – which wasn’t as hard as it might otherwise have been, because I was buried in freelance work when it arrived.

Along with it, I had secreted away another little treasure. A zine-length special he had put out for the season called The Crypt of Blood. I’m bad at guessing word counts, but it was maybe a novella. An ideal length, spooky and short, but not too short. Enough so that there was some meat on the bones…

As summer gave way to fall, as September dwindled down to October, the month of rubber bats and autumn moons, of grinning pumpkins and cotton candy cobwebs, I read them both, one after the other. The Secret Goatman Spookshow would have made a convert of me, had I not been one already. The stories inside travel around, from those told prosaically to those presented in a more experimental fashion – there is a story in the form of the rules for a tabletop roleplaying game, episodes of a cable access show, an oral history of a video game – interspersed with fragments that often directly address the reader.

Yet all of them bear the unmistakable stamp of authorial voice. Whether he’s channeling the buckets of so-fake-it’s-real gore of a SOV slasher or the high strange horror of The X-Files, whether he’s simulating the techniques of found footage so effortlessly that it becomes unnoticeable, or peppering in references to Ghostbusters 2, every story is fun until the exact moment that it isn’t – pulling the rug from under your feet to show you the maggots that have always been squirming beneath.

The same is true of The Crypt of Blood just… focused. For an idea of what you’ll get with Crypt of Blood, imagine if the WNUF Halloween Special were a Hammer vampire film. Then imagine that they were entirely committed to the bit – so much so that the actual narrative was the stuff that took place off screen. Instead of faux commercials full of local color, you have bizarro interstitials that devolve into Ligottian weirdness – interstitials where the real story is being told, because in a Jonathan Raab story, the real story is always the one behind the curtain.

In other words, the perfect read for a dark and stormy Halloween night. (If a dark and stormy Halloween night is not available, please contact your local cable affiliate.)

Here we are with the third (of seven) in my weekly explorations of the purple cover Crestwood House Movie Monsters books that I found at an antique store. As I mentioned in my last post, this time around I’m tackling Revenge of the Creature, a 1987 title in the series adapting the (lackluster) 1955 sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Like The Mole People before it, Revenge is a film that has gotten the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, meaning that I’m more than usually familiar with the script. Which, once again, enables me to let you know that the authors of this book, somewhat inexplicably, took some liberties with the events of the story.

While the end of the book isn’t identical to the end of the picture, it’s much closer this time around than in The Mole People. Instead, the differences crop up in other, less explicable places. For example, when the Gill Man arrives at Ocean Harbor in the movie, he comes by boat (Porpoise III, to be precise) whereas in the book he arrives in a seaplane “specially fitted to carry a large water tank.”

Ocean Harbor is called Ocean Harbor Seaworld in the book, as well. These are just a few of the differences, though most of the others are not so striking. The love triangle between John Agar (again playing a pompous scientist), Lori Nelson, and John Bromfield is downplayed here. The line Agar tosses out about Bromfield being a “grade-A wolf” is still here, but the follow-up that he’s not going to let “Captain America cut into my cake” is missing, along with much of the rest of the film’s sexism. Instead, Agar’s character and Bromfield’s shake hands and Nelson sees that they’re “good friends.”

The book also gets inside the Gill Man’s head a little bit. “Within the Gill Man’s slow brain, a plan was forming,” the authors inform us, after the Gill Man has absconded with Lori Nelson’s character. “This woman was his. He would take her with him to the Black Lagoon.”

Okay, so maybe not all of the sexism is gone.

(Thank god that still over there got a full-page spread, by the way, so we can all bask in its fine quality.)

Like all the books in this series, this one prefaces its retelling of the film with a brief prologue contextualizing the picture. “The earliest sailors believed that monsters lived under the sea,” this one starts. “Even when scientists proved that the stories were false, many people still half-believed them.”

Ah, those good ol’ days when even most people listened to scientists when they said stuff.

The prologue goes on to briefly explain what a sequel is, and suggest that this film was intended to make the audience “feel sorry for the Gill Man,” as if the first movie didn’t already do that more than adequately. “Will you feel sorry for the creature?” the authors ask. “Maybe… as long as he stays hidden in the Black Lagoon!”

I wrote last time about my relationship with the Crestwood House monster books, how I found seven of them at an antique mall, and my plans to post about each one, one a week, until Halloween. So if you need a refresher, there you go.

Thanks to its being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I am probably more familiar with the script for The Mole People than any other movie in either of the Crestwood sets, with the possible exception of two other MST alums, Revenge of the Creature (which I’ll be covering next time) and The Deadly Mantis, from the orange series. Which means I can tell you, unequivocally, that they changed some stuff here.

Like, the beats are all there, but the dialogue is all different. And not just that they excised some of it to keep the length of the book intact, what is there is almost always slightly off in wording – if usually similar in meaning – to what the actors actually say. But the dialogue is the least of it, in some ways. Perhaps the most startling change comes at the end…

The movie ends with the slave girl Adad – played by Cynthia Patrick, who has been gifted to John Agar’s pompous archaeologist Roger Bentley and becomes his love interest in typically ’50s creepy fashion – perishing in an aftershock just after Agar and company reach the surface. The earthquake is here, but Agar and Leave it to Beaver‘s Hugh Beaumont dig her back out and resuscitate her in a fairly anticlimactic sequence.

“Bently uncovered her face,” the authors write. “She was barely breathing. He started giving her first aid. At last, her eyes opened. In a little while she was strong enough to start the climb downward.”

Indeed, where the film ended with Adad perishing, then cutting to a sequence of the subterranean temple being destroyed by the quake, the book adds several paragraphs as Agar, Beaumont, and Patrick make their way down the mountain, and Agar laments that he has no proof of his discovery, except for Adad who, after all, looks just like any other (white) person.

He vows to dig the lost civilization back up, but Adad begs him not to, asking him to, “Let the mountain keep its secrets.”

Ultimately, he agrees. “After all,” the final lines of the book speculate, “there were plenty of other places he could dig. Besides, who would believe his story?”

Normally, in a novelization, we would chalk such a disparity up to the writers working from a shooting script, some previous version that got changed before the film was released. But given that The Mole People came out in 1956 and this book was copyrighted in 1985, that seems an unlikely explanation. Perhaps the authors were pressured (or simply chose) to give the tale a more traditional “happy” ending. I suppose only time will tell if the other volumes in this series share similar variations from their source material.

The ending isn’t the only deviation in The Mole People, even while it is the most major one. Agar’s character is less insufferable here than he is in the film, and, in a haphazard gesture toward at least a kind of diversity, the eponymous mole people are, occasionally, referred to as “Mole Men and Mole Women.” Oh, and the mole people talk in the book, which also doesn’t happen in the movie.

When Agar and Beaumont save some of the mole people from their albino Sumerian oppressors, one of them stops before leaving to tell Agar, “We re-mem-ber,” making their attack at the picture’s climax more an intentional combining of efforts, rather than the conveniently-timed but largely unrelated uprising that it seems on film.

I have written before, extensively, about my relationship with the Crestwood House monster books, most recently in the first issue of Weird Horror from Undertow Publications. For those who weren’t like me, the Crestwood House books were a series of retellings of the classic horror films of yesteryear, illustrated with evocative black-and-white film stills from those same flicks, at least some of them provided by none other than Forrest J. Ackerman.

The school library at just about every elementary school I ever attended had at least a few of them, usually the whole series. The first and best-known set, which kicked off in the late ’70s, had orange-and-black covers and titles hitting upon some of the biggest names in the Universal monster canon, including Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon – not to mention more weirdo titles like The Deadly Mantis and It Came from Outer Space.

Each of those orange books provided an abridged novelization of the film, alongside trivia and context for the films that surrounded it. The Frankenstein book, for instance, summarized the James Whale film, but also talked about Mary Shelley’s novel, Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein, and other films and adaptations before and since.

The lesser-known purple series came out later, kicking off in the ’80s (the ones I have are copyrighted 1985 and 1987) and including more B-sides than its predecessor. Hence, we get titles like Werewolf of London, Tarantula, and House of Fear.

The dimensions of the books were also smaller. While the orange titles were the size of a standard “board book,” the purple series were closer in scale to a mid-grade chapter book. And where the orange books had included a breezy summary of the main film, alongside details about others, the purple series included a more scene-by-scene novelization of the film in question, even if the result was still quite brisk.

While I was obsessed with those books, I never owned any of them – I’m pretty sure they were sold only to libraries, as I’ve never seen a copy without a library stamp inside. Today, they sell for big bucks online, when you can find them at all. Recently, I came across seven of the purple cover titles in a book-filled booth at an antique mall, and brought them all home with me. It’s not quite the full series – I’ve never been able to find a definitive list, but I know I’m missing several titles. Now, as we head toward Halloween, I’ll be reading one a week and posting about it here.

Most of the books in the orange cover series were credited to writer Ian Thorne, actually science fiction author Julian May. All of the purple ones – or, at least, the ones I have – are credited to Carl R. Green and William R. Sanford, authors, according to the website of Enslow Publishing, of “more than one hundred books for young people.”

Each book includes a prologue, usually about a page long, that gives some minor context for the story you’re about to read, and from there on it’s just raw adaptation of the screenplay, accompanied, once again, by black-and-white stills.

I decided to start with Werewolf of London for a variety of reasons. The 1935 film is an oddity, given that it predates The Wolf Man by more than half-a-decade, yet never managed to kick off a franchise the way that film did, even though it was the first mainstream Hollywood film to feature a werewolf. What’s more, it actually features two werewolves, and not just one begetting the other, as in that later picture. Here, there’s an actual werewolf-on-werewolf fight!

Werewolf of London is also interesting in its relationship to the Crestwood House canon. While it didn’t get a book in the orange series, it also kind of did. Not only does the orange Wolf Man book summarize this flick alongside the Lon Chaney Jr. one, it’s the werewolf from Werewolf of London – with his Eddie Munster widow’s peak – who decorates that cover.

It’s been long enough since I watched the film that I can’t tell you for sure which liberties Green and Sanford took with the script, but the writing is, for the most part, of the “see Jane run” style you might expect, with short, unambiguous sentences. “Lisa and Miss Ettie ran down the stairs,” one climactic scene tells us. “The wolfman was faster.”

Which is not to say that such direct language can’t be occasionally effective. “Glendon knew he was now a werewolf,” an earlier scene says, conveying his transformation. “Deep, evil powers ruled him.”

I’ve been using Goodreads for… many years now. I’d be too lazy to figure out how many, but fortunately my profile over there just handily tells me that it’s a little over 12 – I apparently started in March of 2009.

March of 2009 is like another world. At that time, I was still three years out from the publication of my first collection, and I had only sold the tiniest handful of short stories. In fact, 2009 would have been the year that I published my first chapbook novella, The Mysterious Flame, and the year that I attended my very first writing convention, ReaderCon.

In that time, again according to the site’s own stats because otherwise I would certainly have no way of knowing, I have read and reviewed more than 600 books. I won’t be doing that anymore. Reviewing, I mean, at least not on Goodreads.

I’ll probably still be reading books and occasionally writing reviews for places like Signal Horizon that don’t have the problems I’m here to talk about. But, let’s be honest, if you look back over my Goodreads activity for the last year or two, you won’t see anything all that much different from “nothing.” So I doubt anyone would even notice, if I didn’t make the announcement here.

If, like me, you are active at all in writing and book blogging circles, you have probably seen an article making the rounds from Time focused on the site’s problems with “review bombing” and extortion scams. And they’re part of what’s informing this decision, to be sure, but those topics are really only symptoms made possible by Goodreads’ larger problem.

It’s tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the site’s 2013 acquisition by Amazon, but I honestly don’t know when the problem started. What I do know – what I have heard time and time again, from authors both more and less “successful” than me, whatever that word even means – is that Goodreads has a disproportionate power to make or break a writer’s career.

For those dozen years that I’ve been reading and reviewing books on Goodreads, I’ve treated the site much as I treat Letterboxd now: a place where I leave a review and a star rating (even though I’m not terribly fond of using numerical rankings to describe experiences) that reflects my feelings about the book I just read.

This means that a book may get a rating of anywhere from one star to five, based on how much the thing spoke to me, personally. It also means that some things get judged by different criteria than others – I have to have some way of telling all the Mike Mignola comics apart without just giving them all five stars, after all.

The problem is that Goodreads has become a place where, if you give less than five stars to any book, you are basically putting a bullet in that author’s future sales, especially if they’re an indie author, or a marginalized one, or really anybody but, like, Stephen King or J. K. Rowling.

I don’t like that, but it’s the reality of the situation. Ratings on Goodreads and Amazon have huge impacts on the algorithms that get books in front of people and directly impact sales in significant and meaningful ways. A drop of even a few percentage points has real repercussions for an author’s ability to sell their next book, or the one after that.

I can’t change that. It doesn’t matter that I have my own reasons for a rating I might assign, my own system of determining how many stars I click. The algorithm doesn’t know and, more to the point, it doesn’t care. So, the only really ethical choice is to rate every single book five stars, or stop rating them at all. For the most part, I’ll probably be doing that second one.

I’m not shutting down my Goodreads account just yet, though I’ll admit that I’m on there rarely enough as it is. I’m not even going to swear that I’ll never review another book on the site. I may, and when I do just always hand out five stars each time. But I’ll no longer use it to track what I read, as I have until now. I’ll probably go back to doing that the old-fashioned way, in a paper journal – which I still do for movies, even though I also use Letterboxd until such time as I learn that it is equally ethically compromised.

Nor am I presuming to tell you what you should do with your Goodreads habits, except to say this: Think about them, and think hard. Before you leave your next two or three or even four-star review, do some reading about how this system affects authors, especially those who are the most vulnerable. If you have a favorite author with whom you talk or correspond, ask them for their take on the situation. And let all that inform your decision before you select those stars.

Back in 1982, more than a full decade before DC would launch their own, more successful Vertigo line of comics for “mature audiences,” Marvel introduced its Epic Comics imprint. Operating without the Comics Code seal of approval, Epic was also a place where creator-owned projects could happen – and sometimes did, including such titles as Groo the Wanderer and Sam & Max.

By the end of the decade, Epic was also licensing literary (and other) properties, leading to titles as diverse as Wild Cards, Tekworld, the really phenomenal Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser comics by Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola, even a partial adaptation of Neuromancer – not to mention stuff like Elfquest, translations of Akira, and some weirdo crossover titles from their regular line, including a revival of Tomb of Dracula and that Silver Surfer comic that Moebius did, to name a few.

Among the strangest of these, for what we typically think of as Marvel Comics – though not, after all, so strange for the comics scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s – were a series of titles adapting, reimagining, repurposing, and expanding the works of Clive Barker, perhaps most notably Hellraiser. (The pictures accompanying this post are all borrowed from the Totally Epic blog, whose writer set themselves the perhaps-unenviable task of reading everything the imprint ever put out.)

The Hellraiser comic series kicked off in 1989 and ran for about twenty of these, like, digest-sized issues with cardstock covers and square binding. They’re all pretty nice, and they boast an impressive roster of talent, though most are more famous now than they were then. At least one of the Wachowski siblings is here, along with folks like Neil Gaiman, Scott Hampton, Mike Mignola, Bernie Wrightson, and Barker himself.

Besides the main Hellraiser series, there were spin-offs and also-rans, including a three-part adaptation of Barker’s novel Weaveworld and a Nightbreed series that ran for 25 issues or so and has since been collected into a nice hardcover from Boom, complete with a Mike Mignola cover.

There were also spin-off titles to the more popular Hellraiser, including one for Pinhead, which launched in 1993 and ran for six issues, all of them written or co-written by D. G. Chichester, a name that will be familiar to anyone who read much of the Hellraiser comic series. Also spinning off from that series was Harrowers: Raiders of the Abyss, which followed a handful of outcasts who had made their first appearance in the Hellraiser story that Barker had contributed, who were chosen by the goddess Morte Mamme to rescue souls from the Cenobites.

The Pinhead series sees the eponymous Cenobite hurled backward through his past incarnations throughout history, all of whom have different stupid shit stuck in their heads, including bones, arrowheads, and, at one point, tiny bronze swords. Also, because this was 1993, the first issue has a foil cover with art by Kelley Jones.

Harrowers feels maybe more like a regular comic book than most of the rest of these titles, in that it’s about a team of people with super powers who are uncomfortably united by a mission. It definitely feels like something that was intended to go on for more than 6 issues, as the storylines feel like they’re just warming up about the time they stop, and the Harrowers only save, like, three souls from Hell, and one of those is the wrong one. They also fight a headless statue possessed by the soul of Marc Antony in Times Square so, y’know, there’s that.

Probably more than any of the other Cliver Barker Epic titles, Harrowers feels like a warm up for what was to (briefly) come, the launch of a whole imprint, Razorline, dedicated entirely to characters and concepts made up by Barker. Separate from proper Marvel continuity – it’s officially Earth-45828, for those who keep track of such things; meaning who knows, maybe it’ll show up in the MCU once Disney inexplicably acquires whoever owns the rights to Barker’s various IPs – it was also distinct from anything else Barker had done.

While the Epic titles had all played in the Hellraiser sandbox, or adjacent to it in one of Barker’s other literary properties, Razorline was ostensibly going to be all new stories. Some promising talent was even attached, most notably to Ectokid, which started out penned by James Robinson before being handed off to Lana Wachowski – we were still several years pre-Matrix or even Bound at this point, remember.

Razorline amounted to four titles: the aforementioned Ectokid, the overtly superhero-y Hyperkind, the more artsy Saint Sinner, and the phenomenally-titled Hokum & Hex. (Barker may have been partial enough to the name Saint Sinner to use it for an unrelated TV movie in 2002, but Hokum & Hex was pretty clearly his best naming job.) Most of them only ran for nine issues. (Saint Sinner didn’t even make it quite that far.)

I’ve read the majority of these comics, though not most of the Razorline ones. The idea of this weirdo moment in time, when Clive Barker, of all fucking people, was mainstream enough that Marvel was publishing tie-ins of his shit, fascinates me, even while the comics themselves are all over the place. But I’ll be honest, I love them more being all over the place than I would if they were legit great comics (which they very occasionally are, especially some of the Hellraiser stories).

There’s a purity to these oddball comics that ran for a handful of issues and were, generally speaking, a wild combo of cash grab and someone’s genuine love of the material. It’s reminiscent of that magic you find in the gleam of just the right low-budget exploitation B-movie. One of the highs I’m always chasing. One more pin in my head…