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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.”

The original King Kong (1933) is a singular movie for all sorts of reasons, and it remains one of the best monster and adventure movies ever made. No small part of this can be laid at the feet of special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, who did the stop-motion effects for Kong.

In fact, the effects were good enough – and novel enough – that plenty of people supposedly believed that the big ape was played by a guy in a suit, which was the standard way of making an ape movie by 1933. (Another rumor has it that the filmmakers had originally wanted Kong to be played by an actual ape, though that proved logistically unfeasible.)

The mark Kong left on movies was immediate. The sequel, Son of Kong, hit theaters later the same year as its predecessor – a quick turnaround, even for Golden Age Hollywood – and plenty of spoofs and imitators followed both immediately and for years to come. Kong would get remade a bunch of times (some of those remakes getting their own sequels), ripped-off by everyone from Britain to South Korea, and borrowed by Toho to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla (which he then did again here recently, only back in Hollywood this time).

One of the earliest of those spoofs, homages, and so on was an ultimately unfinished, one-reel musical called The Lost Island, which was slated for release in 1934, just a year after Kong had first hit the screen. What makes The Lost Island stand out among the litany of imitators and send-ups of King Kong – both made and otherwise – is that it basically flips the special effects formula of the original film on its head.

Here, Kong is, indeed, played by a guy in a suit – specifically, Charles Gemora, who had basically made a career out of playing apes in movies – and so are the dinosaurs that he skirmishes with. The humans, on the other hand, are puppets. That’s right, in this deliriously weird-sounding lost film, all the human characters of King Kong – Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, and the rest – would have been literal marionettes, doing song-and-dance numbers while a “giant” guy in a gorilla suit wrestled with a guy in a dinosaur costume in their midst.

Sadly, all that survives of the uncompleted picture are a handful of production stills, but they look every bit as surreal as you might expect from that description. It was also intended to be the first short film released in Technicolor.

All this doesn’t come up from nothing. I just watched a 35-minute short film from 2019 called Howl from Beyond the Fog. It’s a kaiju film unlike any other – set in 1909 and made entirely with puppets. It also hearkens back to the earliest origins of the kaiju film. Not King Kong, in this case, but Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Fog Horn,” which was adapted into the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which is widely believed to have influenced the creation of Godzilla, which came out the following year. (Beast also had stop motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, probably history’s greatest practitioner of the form, who was himself inspired by seeing King Kong when he was younger.)

For those who have Amazon Prime, Howl from Beyond the Fog is on there for free right now, and I believe it’s also on Tubi. The runtime is a bit misleading, though. The short film is only 35 minutes long. The rest of the 70 minutes on Prime is behind-the-scenes features.

For those not familiar with the hashtag, #kaijune is for artists to draw illustrations of kaiju, as one might well imagine; one a day, for the entire month of June. This year, in spite of drowning in a deluge of work, I decided to play along. Except that I can’t draw my way out of a wet paper sack, so instead, I wrote a piece of Twitter-length flash fiction every day for the entire month, working off the list of prompts that Alan Cortes posted.

Thanks to anyone and everyone who followed along as I worked through the month, and for those who missed it, here are all my #kaijune pieces:

1. Brute

It came out of the sea, huge and indestructible. When it rose first, just eye stalks, we thought maybe, but as the battleships rolled off its chitinous shoulders, we knew better. Then we saw the first claw…

2. Fortress

Even when the planes and the tanks finally brought it down, what were we to do with it? The city was rubble beneath its bulk and there was no hope of a machine big enough to ever shift it, so we moved into what was left and made new homes within its bones.

3. Shell

I remember my son, asking how mountains form, as I tried to explain things like magma and plate tectonics. Looking out the window now, at the shell that rises up like a new peak from the sea, I wonder which of our other mountains are just waiting to move…

4. Burrow

When we finally defeated the thing that the leader of the mole people called Burrox, a ragged cheer went up from what remained of the defenders. Then we felt the rumbling of all the others beneath us…

5. Frozen

“How would you know a god if you saw one?” she had asked me. Looking up at the expanse of the thing, where it curled in the glacier, I finally knew why.

6. Apex

We thought we had seen the worst of it when they came, like trilobites large enough to bulldoze cities. Then the big one appeared – the new one, the different one – and began hunting the others…

7. Leech

It came from the swamp; black and green, yellow and red. They saw the top of it first, the suckers like eyes, the moving mouth parts, then it came up onto land. “I just didn’t expect it to have legs,” Toby said, as it waded into the city.

8. Colossal

The metallic purple worm crashed down into the Gulf of Mexico. Eyeless, blind, but so big around you couldn’t seen one side of it from the other, even with planes and choppers. Another followed, then another, and we realized they weren’t worms, but fingers.

9. Poison

“Sir,” he said, “the latest reports are in. It’s stopped moving but sir, that isn’t the main thing.”

“Out with it, private.”

“All the people who’ve come into contact with it; who’ve come into contact with places it passed over. Sir … they’re changing.”

10. Brittle

The rocks grew with the rain until they formed massive towers so tall they fell and shattered, littering the desert floor with more rocks that all began to grow in turn. The people in their path watched the weather report with horror.

(A nod to one of my favorite of the “big bug” and adjacents subgenre of movies popular in the ’50s.)

11. Insect

“How did you make the sound?” Tara was asking, her finger pressed up against the screen of the portable TV showing THEY CRAWL.

“You’ll hear soon enough,” was all the director said, his dark green raincoat hunched around his shoulders. He was right.

12. Shadow

It started at 115th Street. A pool of dark gathering between the buildings, growing, stretching, in spite of the noonday sun.

It wasn’t until it reached 87th Street that the buildings began to fall into it.

13. Amphibious

Frogor, King of Toads, crawls forth from the swamp. With three bulbous eyes, he scans his surroundings, where housing developments have grown up while he slumbered. Their tiny, pink inhabitants run and shriek as they spot him, and Frogor licks his lips…

14. Mutant

What came out of the portal was like a mass of chewed bubblegum, its surfaced studded with strange, metallic protrusions. “What is it?” Jiro asked, but even as he said it he thought he recognized a name on what he now realized were helmets…

15. Free Space

“It looks like… I don’t even know how to describe it, folks. Like geometry and trigonometry come to life. It’s making a sound that seems like talking, but not in any language I know. And everything it touches just disappears.”

16. Feathered

We once believed Venus to be a planet of lush jungles. We later learned that it rains sulfuric acid. What we were not prepared for was the serpent that came when our mining robots cracked open the planet’s core, its body shining with jeweled feathers.

17. Cosmic

Movies and video games had taught me to expect giant reptiles, mutated insects, anime robots. This… it was like a tear in the picture of reality lurching through the city, through which I could see only unfamiliar stars.

18. Prehistoric

Over time I guess we kind of got used to the occasional rampages of the atomic lizards, the titanic insects, the giant apes. It never occurred to us that there would be something that was to them as dinosaurs were to our modern chickens…

19. Mimic

I was walking down 117th, I guess, and the edge of the Warren Building just… peeled off, like. The shadows changed and we looked up and what had been windows were now a wing, and beneath that a mouth opening wider and wider…

20. Fungal

One needn’t cook up a giant fungus for #kaijune. It already exists, larger than 200 whales, spreading its hyphae beneath the west coast, waiting for the world above to die so it can feed.

21. Crowned

When the Summer Queen expired, the faerie folk all gathered to see who among their number would manifest the glowing crown. None expected the enormous gator that crawled from the swamp, exhaling butterflies as she came.

22. Laser

“What is a laser,” Professor Shimizu was saying, “but light applied to a minute point? Why not, then, light applied to something much larger?”

By then, however, no one was listening, because the Laser Beast was already blazing its way out of the warehouse.

23. Beast

Dr. Bradus had convinced me it was the only way to defeat the invaders. Transfer my intellect into the body of the giant ape he had created. Once inside that huge frame, however, I found myself wanting nothing but to destroy…

24. Atomic

We didn’t design 8-6, five meters of metal wrapped around a compact atomic core, to fight the trolls. We didn’t really design it for anything. But when the trolls invaded from Jotunheim, we hoped that maybe it had found its purpose, after all.

25. Horror

We knew we had killed it. The experimental bomb Dr. Kozen developed had done its job. So when the waters began to boil we wondered: did it have a child?

The truth was much worse. We had killed it, but we hadn’t stopped it…

26. Savage

“I thought that magnetic collar of yours was supposed to make it more docile,” General Murphy shouted over the carnage.

“Believe me, General,” I replied, “compared to its normal behavior, this is docile.”

27. Ablaze

Robo-17 threw Mozura into the reactors and in the explosion that followed we thought, we hoped, that would be the end of it.

What came out of the blaze, enraged and burning, was so much worse than what had gone in…

28. Conjoined

There is a hush as the two giants finally clash. Our last hope is that they will somehow crush one another.

Instead, their flesh begins to flow like wax as they come together, merge, become one, bigger and more destructive than the sum of its parts.

29. Maw

We always figured that there was something special about the big, red sandstone formation on grandpa’s land.

Then, one day, it opened its eyes, hinged upward from the ground, and revealed its teeth.

30. Transform

“I am Gorgoth,” it bellowed, its wings folding into its body as a second head sprouted above the mouth in its stomach, “the Master of the Id. I can be anything.”

And it was.

“If it can happen to the gerenuk, it can happen to you.”

In case you were concerned that I was abandoning my core brand with all this recent talk about Dungeons & Dragons and board games, I lately learned that there was a 1962 episode of the show Route 66 in which Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney, Jr. guest star as themselves.

Better still, I learned that it’s currently on Prime. So, today I watched it. Please bear in mind that I have never seen even a single other episode of Route 66 – which a little sleuthing tells me was a show in the same “semi-anthology” format as series-creator Stirling Silliphant’s other famous series, The Naked City, with a couple of recurring characters but stand-alone stories driven by the guest stars – and, indeed, didn’t even know the basic plot of the show before I sat down to watch this episode.

The episode, which is set and shot outside Chicago, originally showed on October 26, 1962. Its dual plots involve our two ostensible protagonists (played by Martin Milner and George Maharis) taking jobs as “junior executives in charge of convention liaison” at a hotel where a secretary’s convention is being held along with a secret meeting between Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney (as well as Martita Hunt from Brides of Dracula playing their legal advisor) so that the trio can plan a new series of horror films they will be producing.

Peter Lorre is convinced that the old ways are the best ways and wants to create new movies in the classic gothic style, arguing in favor of monsters in which people can see themselves. Karloff, on the other hand, doesn’t think that anyone will be afraid of the creaky old monsters, and wants to create new, “adult” horror. (“My kind of horror is not horror anymore,” Karloff would lament just six years later in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. “No one is afraid of a painted monster.”)

In fact, this episode of Route 66 makes a good thematic double-feature with the much more serious Targets, which tackles a similar question with regards to the efficacy of classic horror and comes to very different conclusions. Dedicated readers no doubt remember me writing about Targets in the past, and recognize the above quote as the source of the title of my second collection.

This episode, titled “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing,” came out just six years before Bogdanovich’s film, but a world of difference has elapsed in those six years. If Targets is a film about how horror cinema – and the nation – changed from before the ’60s to after, then “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” is an episode that sees that change coming, but still takes refuge in the comforts of what was.

Not that this is a thematically-dense episode. It’s a confection, and mostly an excuse for Karloff, Lorre, and Chaney to have a blast – which they do, from Chaney’s weepy temper tantrums when people aren’t afraid of him to the recurring gag that people are afraid of Peter Lorre, even when he’s not trying.

“You’re the spitting image of Peter Lorre,” the desk clerk tells him, as he’s checking in incognito. “A bit insulting, isn’t it?” Lorre replies, as only Lorre can. Later, as Chaney in his wolf-man getup is frightening the secretaries and causing them to faint, three of them faint dead away upon catching sight of Lorre just standing there like normal.

“I think I resent that,” Lorre quips, aridly.

It’s also a piece of horror history – even while it’s really nothing more than a piece of horror ephemera. Karloff dons a cut-rate version of the Frankenstein’s monster makeup for the first time since 1939, and we get to see Chaney done up as the mummy, the wolf-man, and even a take on his late father’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Mummy 01To say that A Lot has been going on in the world lately is to engage in the most ridiculous understatement. We are living in unprecedented times, and things have taken a turn for the very strange and, let’s face it, probably very tragic, no matter how they shake out.

With any luck, we will manage to prevent the loss of countless lives to COVID-19, but some will still die (some already have), businesses will close, and people will suffer. The future is not necessarily bleak, but it does promise to be difficult.

Everyone has been coping with the pandemic and being on essentially house arrest in their own ways, some better than others. For me, not that much has changed. As a freelancer, I work from home anyway, so it’s just been business as usual, more or less, with the most significant difference being that Grace is currently furloughed and so I’m the only one gainfully employed at the moment – not something you ever want to say, when you’re a freelancer.

Ultra - ReigubasOne thing that’s been helping to keep my days a little brighter, though, and that I’ve been sharing on my various social media timelines in order to, hopefully, brighten the days of my friends and followers, is that Mike Mignola has been doing daily sketches.

The subjects of these sketches have ranged from The Flintstones to Ultraman monsters to a day of mummies to Godzilla and Gamera to Jack Kirby monsters to, most recently, figures from Ray Harryhausen movies. There hasn’t been a Ymir yet, but I’m keeping all my digits crossed.

RommbuThere’s not much of a news post to go with this. Just letting you know that I’m still here, and sharing a few of the drawings that have been helping me to keep my head up as the days of the pandemic tick by.

Between freelance assignments, I’ve been working on a longish project that unfortunately has to remain secret for now, and making good headway. I’ve written a few reviews and other nonfiction things that will be appearing in various places in the near future. Beyond that, there’s not a lot to report.

 

Scott Nicolay is doing the proverbial lord’s work in translating the weird, short fiction of prolific Belgian author Jean Ray (not getting into his many pseudonyms, of which this is actually one) into English.

In this game, we talk a lot about H.P. Lovecraft and less than we should about folks like William Hope Hodgson, Manly Wade Wellman, M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and the like. But even they get more attention in the anglophone weird fiction community than Ray, whose work deserves every bit as much good press as any of their number, in my humble estimation.

My introduction to Jean Ray may well have been the two stories that wrap up Cruise of Shadows, Ray’s second collection to receive English-language translation by Nicolay. These stories, “The Gloomy Alley” (under its alternate English translation “The Shadowy Street”) and “The Mainz Psalter” were previously reprinted in English in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird.

tumblr_m1xz59FxVZ1qf0717o1_500From there, I read everything I could conveniently get my hands on in translation, which mostly amounted to the old paperback of Ghouls in My Grave (pretty much the only Ray collection available in English for a long time) and Ray’s brilliant weird novel Malpertuis, one of those extremely rare long-form masterpieces of the capital-W Weird.

In fact, I even tracked down the (weird, indeed, but also more than a little disappointing) 1971 film version of Malpertuis, featuring an aging Orson Welles.

From that minuscule aperture into his oeuvre, I could tell that Jean Ray was a classic Weird writer quite unlike any other I had ever read. I was hooked and had to have more, but, being relatively poor and unable to read French, my options were limited. That is, until Wakefield Press began putting out this indispensable series of Jean Ray collections, in new translations by Scott Nicolay.

The previous volume, Whiskey Tales, was a rare jewel for someone like me, who was already thirsty for more Jean Ray stories. But, though it made Ray’s reputation in his native language – a reputation that was shortly ruined when he went to prison – it has less to offer those who are not already aficionados of the weird and macabre or fans of “the Belgian Poe,” as Ray was sometimes called.

There are classic stories of the weird and ghostly in Whiskey Tales, to be sure, including one which had appeared in Ghouls in My Grave under the title “The Cemetery Watchman,” which Nicolay’s translation renders as “The Cemetery Guard,” but many of the stories are little more than vignettes, and while all share the unmistakable absurdity and melancholy of Ray’s voice, several lack any overt supernatural element.

In his translator’s afterword, Nicolay makes the argument that Cruise of Shadows may be Ray’s masterwork of the Weird, and I would not be disinclined to agree. All of the stories in Cruise are longer, more refined, and more overtly supernatural than many of those in Whiskey Tales. The virulent antisemitism that marred those earlier stories is here also at least deflated somewhat, if not gone completely.

The joy of reading Ray is, in no small part, the joy that he takes in language, and Nicolay retains that joy in his translations. Even the three stories in this latest volume that I had read before felt fresh and new here, not least because, in “The Mainz Psalter” – possibly Ray ‘s most famous short – there is an entire section that is newly reinstated that was not present in the previous translation.

Accompanying each of the stories are extensive translator’s notes that help to explain the idiosyncrasies of the language and to supply context for the tales. For all their many allusions to things of the day, their intentional archaisms, and so on, these tales feel vital and fresh and modern in ways that make Ray’s contemporaries – including Lovecraft, to whose writing I mean no slight here – feel old-fashioned and straightforward by comparison.

Ray’s writing is conversational. These are – often literally – tales told in bars, spoken by tongues loosened by drink. They take circuitous routes, become infected by the obsessions, the whims, the tics, and the cul-de-sacs of their narrators. In many ways, this very circumlocution grants the stories much of their weird power.

The majesty of Ray’s prose is in its ability to conjure – not a clear image of a thing, but a clear feeling of it. An atmosphere – oppressive, claustrophobic, inescapably strange – that is called forth like a poet, out of a handful of allusions and carefully-chosen words.

All of the stories in Cruise of Shadows demonstrate Ray’s mastery of that ineffably weird, almost absurd atmosphere that is, at every moment, teetering on the brink of tipping over into comedy, which makes its icy fingers all the more chilling.

The famous diptych that closes out the collection – “The Gloomy Alley” and “The Mainz Psalter” – may be Ray at his best, but my favorite among the new-to-me stories in this volume was probably “Mondschein-Dampfer,” which Scott Nicolay also singled out as his favorite of the bunch.

The “deal with the devil” motif is a favorite of mine, and the mephistophelean moment of that deal in this story is one of the best of its kind I’ve ever read. Others offer similarly uncanny moments, including the delightfully spooky “The Last Guest,” which was previously translated as “The Last Traveler” in Ghouls in My Grave, and “Durer, the Idiot,” which, along with “The Gloomy Alley,” seems to prefigure some of what Ray would later get up to in Malpertuis.

For fans of Weird fiction or “the Belgian Poe,” both of these volumes (and all others that are forthcoming) are must-haves. For those whose affections toward the genre are more diffident or who are simply new to the works of Jean Ray, I would recommend starting with Cruise of Shadows. Then, once you’re hooked, you won’t be able to get enough.

 

In one of my earliest memories – this would have been sometime before I was in third grade – I’m sitting on the living room floor, eating a hamburger and watching The Fly on network TV. Not the relatively benign 1958 version with Vincent Price and David Hedison, either. The incredibly gross David Cronenberg one with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.

In the memory, my mom comes in during some particularly gruesome, gloppy sequence and asks me how I can eat while I watch that, to which I just kind of shrug. Here’s the relevance of this memory: It was my first exposure a certain, generally much older, kind of monster movie.

I’ve said many times in various places that I was born too late to be a true Monster Kid. The days when the Shock Theater package were showing on TV were before my time. When I was a kid, though, we got a channel that showed monster movies on Saturday mornings. Not the classics. No Frankenstein or Dracula, but rather stuff like Squirm and The Food of the GodsWillard and the occasional Godzilla flick.

From my school library, I checked out copies of those Crestwood House monster series books, which were my introduction to the old monster movies of the ’30s, ’40s, and even into the ’50s. I pored over those books, imagining the films that would go with those evocative black-and-white photos. It was my only exposure to those old movies for years, until I was in college.

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This is all a long preamble to the following: Like all kinds of movies, the monster movie qua monster movie has undergone transformations over the years.  As Dario Argento once said, “Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing.”

And monsters, specifically, are uniquely immune to solid definitions. A monster, by its nature, by the very etymology, is an aberration, a breach of the rules.

Also, like all kinds of movies, the monster movie has always been been more than one thing. There is its most simple definition: a movie that has a monster or monsters in it. But then there is also the monster movie as a form, which, I would argue, has transitioned through at least two major shapes over the years.

The “classic” monster movie, as popularized by the Universal monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, The MummyThe Wolf Man, on up through Creature from the Black Lagoon, is a film in which the monster is generally both protagonist and antagonist.

The movie follows the monster and those who are in the monster’s life (or “life”) rather than (or in addition to, or as much as) its victims. The monster, whether by its nature or through hubris, is a figure both tragic and sinister. This is as true of King Kong as it is of Frankenstein.

The second major formulation of the monster movie is one popularized by the “atomic panic” movies of the 1950s – the big bug movies like Them! or Tarantula, early kaiju films like Godzilla, and even alien invasion films like It Came from Outer Space or The Blob.

In this formulation, the monster is often a growing and existential threat. Maybe it will literally wipe out life if it continues to expand, such as in The Thing, or maybe it is a threat to free will and identity, such as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or, hey, The Thing.

The thrust of this form of film is an attempt to stop the monster, usually with some kind of ticking clock where if it isn’t stopped before a certain point it will expand beyond our ability to stop it. In The Thing, this is keeping the monster contained in Antarctica, for instance.

The monster in this form is not generally a tragic figure. With the occasional exception of alien invaders, it cannot (or will not) usually communicate with humans. It is a force of nature, or an animal. In The Monolith Monsters, the eponymous monsters were literally inanimate rocks.

The “big bug” movies of the ’50s, as their informal name implies, often featured normal animals (usually but not exclusively bugs) grown to an enormous size. In the wake of the success of Jaws, these huge animals were often replaced by normal animals simply run amok for whatever reason.

Whatever particular shape they take, the creatures in these movies tend away from the anthropomorphic, in nature if not in form.

From the ’50s on, this second formulation became, in most cases, the default for the monster movie qua monster movie. Even Hammer’s Gothic chillers, which remade the Universal classics for a new generation, sometimes (though by no means exclusively) rendered their creatures more mute and implacable than tragic.

To bring this back around to where I started, one of the things that makes David Cronenberg’s Fly so striking is that it’s that original kind of monster movie.

The 1958 version was too, of course, and it’s far from the only movie from the ’80s that is, but it was unusual enough for its time, and, probably more importantly for this discussion, was my first introduction to that style of movie, the monster movie’s first major form.

Sure, I was probably aware of the plots of Frankenstein or King Kong by the time I saw The Fly, but I had never seen them. Had never seen the pathos of the monster displayed onscreen so eloquently.

I’ve watched it many times since. I’ve also watched the original, and all of its sequel. I’ve experienced all of the original Universal classics, and their silent film predecessors. But watching the David Cronenberg version on Blu-ray today made me think about all of this, so I wrote it down here.

20171202_104727Friday afternoon I left KC and headed south for what was supposed to be an overnight trip to visit the Ray Harryhausen exhibit at the Science Museum Oklahoma, on literally the day before the exhibit closed down. I was able to make the trip at all thanks to lots of help from my patient, affectionate, and extremely supportive wife. Up until that day, about the most strenuous excursion I had attempted since my surgery was a couple of trips to the movies (notwithstanding a couple of trips to the emergency room, which, while plenty strenuous, weren’t exactly voluntary).

I ended up overdoing it a bit at the museum, and what was supposed to be a one night trip turned into a two night one, but other than that I seem to have returned no worse for the wear than when I left. And I got to see the Harryhausen exhibit!

20171202_105835For those who may not know, Ray Harryhausen is one of my biggest inspirations, and, for my money, easily one of the greatest monster designers who ever lived. I own a book of his art and a book of behind-the-scenes stuff from his films, as well as just about every movie he ever worked on. My first novel was dedicated to him. So the opportunity to see some of the models and illustrations that had gone into five of his most famous films up close and in person was one that I didn’t want to miss, surgery or no surgery. (It is only thanks to Grace that I didn’t miss it, so she deserves another shout out here.)

 

It’s difficult to put into words what seeing these objects in person meant to me. Earlier this year, I got to go see the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and while the influence of GDT on my own work is probably more immediately obvious than the influence of Harryhausen, I would be extremely hard pressed to say which exhibit affected me more.

On the car ride back, Grace and I were discussing the exhibit, and I talked about the magic that is present in stop motion animation, especially that animation done by Ray Harryhausen. How much personality he was able to breathe into all of his creatures, how watching his films is like watching your toys come to life. And that magic was in the air everywhere at the exhibit, all of the models seeming like they were just one moment away from stirring into motion.

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In spite of the books I’ve read, documentaries I’ve seen, and commentary tracks I’ve listened to, I learned things at the exhibit that I didn’t already know. I learned how some of the armatures were cannibalized and repurposed for other creatures in other films, I learned about them strapping a bunch of stuntmen together in order to capture the motions of the Kali statue. I was already aware of Harryhausen’s own debt to the engravings of Gustave Dore, but I was happy to see that debt laid out in detail, and to see illustrations done by Harryhausen that obviously owed a heavy debt to Dore.20171202_105608

I know that I didn’t see most of Harryhausen’s other films until I was older, but I saw Clash of the Titans on TV when I was just a kid, and it had the same impact on me that Star Wars had on other people around my age. Seeing creatures like Harryhausen’s iconic take on Medusa or the Kraken in person was amazing beyond my ability to put into words.

Sadly, since the exhibit focused on Harryhausen’s fantasy films, I wasn’t able to see my very favorite of his creations–Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth–who may not exist in any significant form anyway, since his armature got reused on other creatures later on.

The rest of the Science Museum was pretty amazing as well, and I probably could have spent easily twice as much time there as I did, had I not run completely out of energy. As it was, I missed a lot of what it had to offer, but was able to see a planetarium show, check out an exhibit on Cabinets of Curiosities and an exhibit on shoes, and watch a live chemistry show where they made things explode. Grace even got to be a volunteer and hold an explosion in the palm of her hand!

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There’s so much more I could say about the trip, about the exhibit, about the museum, about Harryhausen, but I need to catch up on the things that I didn’t get done while I was away over the weekend, so I should probably wrap this up. I promised lots of pictures, some of which I’ve already been posting over on Instagram, but I’ll leave a few more in this post for those who weren’t able to make it out to the show themselves. Do yourself a favor, and if anything like this ever comes anywhere near you, make it a point to go. (And if you live within traveling distance of the Science Museum Oklahoma, go even though this exhibit is no longer showing. It’s worth it.)

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Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the new Mummy yet. I’ll probably do so this weekend, because I have free tickets, but I doubt I would pay money for it. Here’s why:

It isn’t because the movie looks bad (though it kind of does, and the reviews certainly haven’t been kind). I’ve said before that if the trailers were exactly the same but when the title came up it said Mission: Impossible 6 instead then it would look fine, and I stand by that. No, the problem isn’t that Mummy: Impossible is an inherently bad approach to take to a film, it’s that it’s an inherently bad angle for Universal to take to launch their “Dark Universe” shared monster franchise.

I was talking with some writing friends about the new Tom Cruise-starring Mummy movie on Facebook messenger a few days ago, and Jeremy Tolbert posited that if he were in charge, the story would focus on “a group of kids who had a disturbing encounter with a series of monsters [in 1989]. After that, they dedicated their lives to being prepared to deal with future threats.” Not only does that sound like a better setup, it actually underscores the real problem with the 2017 reboot of The Mummy, which isn’t the dodgy CGI, the (apparently) lifeless characterizations, or the fact that it looks to be a goofy action movie that is largely lacking any horror to speak of.

The problem is that Universal doesn’t seem to understand what the actual value of its monster franchise is. But Monster Squad did, even while, not being financed by Universal, Monster Squad had to change all of its creatures just enough to avoid getting slapped with a cease and desist. The thing is, Universal doesn’t own the idea of a mummy, it doesn’t own Frankenstein, it doesn’t own Dracula. Which means that the biggest problem with this new Mummy movie, before you even get to whether or not it is any good on its own merits, is that any studio could have made it. It could just as easily have a Sony or a WB logo in front of it as the old, familiar Universal globe. And there’s the rub.

The value in Universal’s monster universe isn’t the monsters themselves, because, with the exception of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, they’re all public domain. The value is in the aesthetics of those original movies. That’s what Monster Squad got and this new “Dark Universe” brand doesn’t. Without those original movies, you’re just making an action film with a mummy in it, and anyone can do that.

Even the Brendan Fraser Mummy from 1999 (which, I’ll admit, I love) knew that, and pulled plot elements, names, and the occasional bit of imagery from the older Universal Mummy sequels (mostly). Hell, even the largely terrible shitshow that was Van Helsing was closer to the mark than this looks to be. How, exactly, you tap into that reservoir of old film aesthetics is up for some debate, but that you have to in order to mine anything valuable out of the intellectual property that Universal still owns seems like a no-brainer.

Or they could always just have the monsters go up against the gang from the Fast & Furious movies, preferably while driving monster-themed funny cars. That’d work, too.

I recently got back from a trip to Atlanta for the first (annual?) Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird, where I was one of a handful of panelists who talked about “The Weird Monster.” While the panel (and, indeed, all of the Symposium) is intended to show up as a part of The Outer Dark podcast sooner or later, I wanted to share a few thoughts that came about independent from but related to the panel.

For one thing, the discussion of the subject among the panelists began (as such things so often do) at the bar the night before the Symposium actually started, and continued throughout the weekend, ranging far and wide. On the flight to Atlanta and back, I started reading John Langan’s The Fisherman, and had I finished it then, I could certainly have brought it up as a modern novel that tackles the “weird monster.” (Not to mention a great contemporary example of the “weird novel,” which was the subject of another panel at the Symposium.)

As is often the case, however, while we talked about monsters in literature, many of our examples were drawn from movies. Because, while we have sometimes read the same books, we have almost all seen the same movies. Throughout the weekend, subjects returned with an almost uncanny regularity, including (probably because of the proximity of Alien: Covenenant) how angry we all still were at Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for being so unforgivably terrible (with the exception of a handful of dogged defenders).

One subject that came up a couple of times was Kong: Skull Island, which I had recently seen, and which we discussed, along with the whole backlog of Kong and Godzilla and other kaiju cinema through the lens of the weird monster. I’m not really here to regurgitate any of our theories on that, though no less a personage than Caitlin R. Kiernan has made a pretty good argument in the past for consideration of the original 1933 King Kong as a Lovecraftian tale.

One thing I didn’t get to talk much about, except with kaiju enthusiast and Symposium co-organizer Anya Martin on the car ride back to the airport, is a subject that I have been meaning to bring up in re: Skull Island, but that I wanted to wait until the movie had been in theatres for a few weeks so as to avoid spoilers. Still, fair warning, there will be a few in what follows, so heads up.

I liked Skull Island well enough (you can read my thoughts about it here), but one thing that really struck me about it is something that I haven’t seen anyone else talking about, though I’m sure they have. Kong: Skull Island was packed to the gills with monsters, and while those monsters may have varied somewhat in execution, I saw in most of them a sort of kinship with monsters from previous Kong and Godzilla movies. The big spider that shows up in Skull Island looks an awful lot like Godzilla’s sometime-nemesis Kumonga, while the scene of Kong fighting the squids or octopi could easily be a nod to the scene when Kong fights the giant octopus in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Those are pretty minor, though. More significant are the skull crawlers. These bipedal lizard-like creatures are the main antagonists of Skull Island, the subterranean horrors that Kong’s presence helps protect the rest of the island from. Their design has received both praise and derision, depending on the person, but virtually everyone I’ve seen talk about them has discussed them as though they are a wholly new addition to the giant monster canon, but for me, at a glance, I saw something else entirely.

As anyone who is reading this probably knows, the first cut of the original 1933 King Kong contained a famous (and famously lost) sequence in which the protagonists fall into a “spider pit” and are attacked by all sorts of weird creatures. Over the years, a couple of shots that are supposedly from this sequence have surfaced, but the sequence itself remains one of the most famous pieces of lost film in history. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, he not only added the “spider pit” sequence back into his narrative, he also “restored” a version of it using stop-motion animation and incorporating footage from the original film. (You can watch that here.)

Apart from Peter Jackson’s recreation, the closest we’re ever likely to come to actually seeing the original “spider pit” sequence from Kong is a cave sequence in the 1957 film The Black Scorpion, for which Willis O’Brien did the special effects. (You can watch a portion of that here.) According to rumor, the models used for the cave sequence in The Black Scorpion were repurposed models from the original “spider pit” sequence.

Dore Spider PitLike all of the original King Kong, the “spider pit” sequence was heavily influenced by the artwork of Gustave Dore. You can see some obvious “spider pit” seeds in a couple of Dore’s illustrations for Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso in particular. (There’s an entire thread devoted to Dore’s influence on the “spider pit” sequence that you can read here.) In Dore’s illustrations and Jackson’s recreation of the “spider pit” sequence, you’ll find odd lizard-like creatures that have only front legs, which transmutes, in The Black Scorpion, to a sort of giant worm with bifurcated tentacles mounted near its head. These bipedal lizards are, I would argue, at least potentially, perhaps subconsciously on the part of the monster designers, the ancestors of the skull crawlers from Kong: Skull Island.

This isn’t really an attempt at a defense of those critters. If they didn’t work for you on screen, chances are they still won’t, and I’ll be honest when I say that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about them, even now. (Their design seems at once boringly modern while at the same time oddly weirder than it needs to be; it took me a while to notice that they had eyes mounted behind the eye sockets of their skull-like heads.) But it was something that I noticed and (obviously) wanted to write like a thousand words about, so there you go.

[Edited: Thanks to Outer Dark host Scott Nicolay for reminding me that the weird bipedal lizard does, in fact, show up in the original King Kong, and that I hadn’t just hallucinated it there because I knew about all this other crap.]