Friday, December 31, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Seven: “The Undersea Kingdom of Mongo”



“The Undersea Kingdom of Mongo“ was the seventh installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between April 12 and October 11, 1936, “The Undersea Kingdom of Mongo” picks up the storyline where the sixth installment, “At War with Ming” left off with Flash, Dale, and Zarkov’s rocketship eluding Ming’s air fleet in the heavy fog known as the Sea of Mystery.

A magneto-ray from the ocean brings the rocketship down, our heroes bail out, but only Zarkov and Dale come ashore on an island with Flash presumed drowned at sea. In fact, the magneto-ray has brought the unconscious Flash below the ocean to the undersea kingdom of Coralia where Queen Undina takes an immediate fancy to Flash.
Undina is the latest in Alex Raymond’s line of femme fatales. It seems that while Mongo has honorable males to offset the many villainous fiends and monstrous creatures, the females of Mongo are all scheming nymphomaniacs.

Queen Undina has her chief scientist Triton subject Flash to the lung machine which converts him into a water-breather like her people. Consequently, he is now unable to survive on land.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Six: “At War with Ming”



“At War with Ming“ was the sixth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between October 20, 1935 and April 5, 1936, “At War with Ming” picks up the storyline where the fifth installment, “The Witch Queen of Mongo” left off with Flash awaiting Ming’s recognition of Kira, the cavern kingdom he had conquered over the course of the last two installments as an official kingdom of Mongo.

Unsurprisingly, Ming rejects Flash’s claims that Azura has abdicated as valid and demands that she be vanquished before he will recognize Flash as a legitimate monarch. Sadly, just as in the real life it is a petty disagreement that is interpreted as justifiable cause for war.

Flash immediately declares war on Ming in response to the insult he received. Flash and Dale head the Black Lancers, while the Hawkman Khan heads the infantry and Dr. Zarkov heads Azura’s artillery unit. The first strip ends with Kira’s forces mobilizing for war despite being hopelessly outnumbered.

For the next five and a half months, readers thrilled to Alex Raymond’s glorious depictions of battle. It seems strange, from the vantage point of the 21st Century, to see that the attitude that a war fought over wounded egos was still considered glorious after the tragic and monumental loss of life during the First World War less than twenty years before.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Blake Edwards: A Personal Remembrance



This wasn’t the article I planned on posting this week. Those that know me are aware of my obsession with Blake Edwards’ work. It is also true to say that I am obsessive about the work of Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Sax Rohmer, Ray Davies, and countless other writers. However, my love of writers and writing begins and ends with Mr. Edwards.

Blake Edwards’ passing this week brings his work back into focus again for the public at large. He was a prolific writer/producer/director with a body of work that spanned nearly eight decades and ran the gamut from film, radio, television, and theater. A native Oklahoman, the stepfather who adopted him made him the third part of a family that now boasts five generations in the entertainment industry.

His early success came in radio creating the hardboiled detective series, Richard Diamond, Private Detective which later made a successful transition to television and led Edwards to produce his own television variation in the form of the classic Peter Gunn. The latter project began an association with composer Henry Mancini that continued for over 35 years until Mancini’s death.

Edwards’ successful transition from radio to television ran concurrent with his consistent work in film, largely as the writing partner of director Richard Quine. Edwards served as Quine’s second unit director which led to his own opportunity to move into directing feature films in the mid-1950s.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Five: “The Witch Queen of Mongo”



“The Witch Queen of Mongo“ was the fifth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between April 21 and October 13, 1935, “The Witch Queen of Mongo” picked up the storyline where the fourth installment, “Caverns of Mongo” left off with Flash and Dale setting out to conquer the cave kingdom that was awarded to Flash following the tourney held by Ming and Vultan.

Writer/artist Alex Raymond benefitted greatly from the contributions of ghost writer Don Moore who developed characterization to bring much-needed balance to the nonstop parade of cliffhangers. The serial quickly sets the tone with Dale’s mounting frustration with Flash’s preference for continued adventures over settling down and marrying her. This development coincides with the introduction of Azura, the titular Witch Queen of the Kingdom of Syk.

Azura is the second of Alex Raymond’s stunning exotic women of Mongo and rivals Aura in complexity and appeal. The Witch Queen’s descent from the heavens on a stair of flames is an iconic image that may have influenced Frank Frazetta’s cover art for Conan the Freebooter three decades later. Likewise, Flash’s Nordic-style horned helmet suggests the strip was a vital inspiration on the depiction of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian pulp hero.

From the very start, the point is made that the Witch Queen’s “magic” is nothing more than advanced technology. The continued juxtaposition of the futuristic with medieval fantasy remained a potent formula for success with the stip.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

A Brief History of Dr. Anton Phibes


Dr. Anton Phibes is the mad genius played by Vincent Price in two cult classic films for American International Pictures in the early seventies. Director Robert Fuest imbued both The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) with a surprising degree of style and wit that set them apart from virtually all other genre films of their era.

The creation of screenwriters James Whiton and William Goldstein, Phibes was portrayed in their original screenplay, The Curses of Dr. Pibe (not a typo on my part, the character’s surname was subsequently altered) in a much more serious vein. Their intended film was both dramatic and horrific and much more in keeping with the tone of horror films of the early 1970s. It is a far cry from the blackly-humored, deliberately anachronistic 1920s period piece resplendent in Art Deco designs that Fuest delivered to AIP.

Dr. Phibes is said to hold doctorates in both music and bio-physics. Phibes is an acclaimed organist and composer and, in private, an eccentric and reclusive inventor. He is hopelessly devoted to his beautiful young wife, Victoria (played in both films by the lovely Caroline Munro) who dies on an operating table following a car crash that leaves her husband horribly disfigured with a literal death’s head in place of a face.

Victoria’s death drives Phibes insane. He allows the world to think him dead and sets out to exact revenge on the surgical team he holds accountable for her death. He employs the G’tach, the Biblical seven curses of Egypt as his means of assassinating each member of the surgical team. The murders are investigated by a hapless Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Trout (wonderfully underplayed by Peter Jeffrey).

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Dr. Nikola: An Introduction



Dr. Nikola is another highly influential Victorian character who has been all but forgotten in the intervening century. The creation of Australian novelist Guy Boothby, Antonio Nikola was one of the earliest examples of a villain granted his own series. Nikola appears in five novels: A Bid for Fortune (1895), Dr. Nikola Returns (1896), The Lust of Hate (1898), Dr. Nikola’s Experiment (1899), and Farewell, Nikola (1901).
Many of the trademarks associated with later criminal geniuses begin with Nikola. Like James Bond’s nemesis Blofeld and his ever-present white Persian cat, Nikola is rarely seen without his black cat Apollyon. Fu Manchu’s pet marmoset Peko is often depicted perched on his shoulder in Sax Rohmer’s thrillers, so Apollyon is regularly described as perching on Nikola’s shoulder.
It is Fu Manchu who owes the most to Nikola. The description of Fu Manchu’s “brow like Shakespeare and face like Satan” finds a parallel in Nikola’s similarly striking features. Nikola is described as having “the Devil’s eyes.”
Even more so, Fu Manchu shares with Nikola an uncharacteristic code of honor that makes these villains somewhat sympathetic in the reader’s eye. Both villains make generous gifts to the individuals they formerly persecuted treating the entire affair as if it was merely a game.
Both Fu Manchu and Antonio Nikola are assumed names and the reader never learns the character’s true identity. Both characters employ dwarf assassins and have laboratories of lethal insects at their disposal. Finally, both Nikola and Fu Manchu studied Lamaism at a Tibetan monastery and seek an Elixir Vitae to grant them immortality.
Despite these similarities, Nikola is far more than a dry run for Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming’s criminal masterminds for his storyline is unique in that it moves from a tale of revenge to become one of redemption as the series progresses.
Nikola’s life story unravels across the five books as the narrators and the reader learn more and more about the mysterious figure whose appeal persists despite the atrocities he commits.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Dr. Mabuse: An Introduction




Like Fantomas before him, Dr. Mabuse is criminally unknown in the United States. The master villain was introduced in Norbert Jacques’ 1922 novel, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (also published as Dr. Mabuse, Master of Mystery). Jacques was a French journalist who had immigrated to Germany and wrote the novel as a scathing indictment of the corruption prevalent in the waning days of the Weimar Republic.

Dr. Mabuse is a practicing psychiatrist. He is also an avid occultist who conducts séances and practices Mesmerism. A master of disguise, Mabuse is also the head of a vast criminal empire controlling gambling, drugs, and prostitution throughout the Berlin underworld. Mabuse maintains a stranglehold on both the criminal lower class and the degenerate upper class through their addictions to vice and their reliance upon the occult and psychiatry to direct their lives.

The novel captures much of the corruption and anti-Semitism that were leading Germany on a downward spiral toward Nazism. Mabuse’s surprising ambition is to transform his empire of crime and deception into a utopian dream of a socialist paradise. Jacques saw socialism, the influence of modern psychiatry, and the growing interest in the occult as being as much a threat to Germany as the vice dens that kept the lower classes from rising above their station while simultaneously pulling the upper classes down.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Fantomas: An Introduction




Fantomas is criminally unknown in the United States. Only seven of the original 43 classic French pulp novels are currently in print in English. The series is unique in its successful blend of black comedy and absurdist humor within the traditional murder mystery genre.

Fantomas himself is a criminal anarchist who robs and murders for the sheer joy of creating chaos. While the murders are frequently described in surprisingly grisly detail for their day, they are quickly followed by delightfully sublime escapes or revelations handled with such a deftly light touch that it is impossible not to find the villainous character fun in spite of his many crimes.

Fantomas made his debut in the 1911 novel, Fantomas. The book was an instant sensation whose appeal transcended all barriers of French society. The avant-garde adopted the character as one of their own. Inspired by Gino Sterace’s lurid cover art for the first book, surrealists such as Rene Magritte and Juan Gris, composer Kurt Weil, and poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob soon incorporated the character in their work.

Fantomas’ appeal to the art world was as strong as the popularity of the books among the working class. The character’s centennial next year will be marked with celebrations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia in an effort to bring greater recognition to the character and its impact on 20th Century art.

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Marvel’s The Monster of Frankenstein, Part Four



The 20th Century adventures of Mary Shelley’s famous monster continued with a guest-star stint in Giant-Size Werewolf #2. Doug Moench scripted and Don Perlin provided the artwork.
Moench gets to make his familiar point about judging by appearances (as he demonstrated several times in his Frankenstein 1974 scripts for Monsters Unleashed) with a nice opening in which a hippie and an African-American are discussing the injustice of unfounded prejudices when they encounter the Monster and immediately flee in terror at his appearance.
The Monster overhears a conversation between two winos about eccentric millionaire Danton Vayla who has discovered the ability to transmigrate souls and sets off for Los Angeles (by freight train) in the hopes of gaining a new, normal body.
The story then shifts gears to pick up a plot strand from Marvel’s monthly Werewolf by Night title where Lissa Russell has joined a Satanic cult, The Brotherhood of Baal in the hopes of finding a cure for her werewolf brother. Lissa quits the cult after learning that they practice human sacrifice. The Brotherhood abducts Lissa and scrawl Manson-style graffiti on the walls of her home. This sends Jack Russell in search of his sister. He soon discovers that Danton Vayla (who resembles Anton LaVey in name as well as appearance) is the leader of the Brotherhood of Baal and about to sacrifice Lissa in the very ritual that the Monster’s soul is to transmigrate into the body of a handsome young cult member. One lengthy Werewolf-Monster scuffle later and Vayla lies dead, the cult is ruined and Lissa is freed. The Monster and Jack apparently plunge to their death when Vayla’s flaming Malibu beach-house plunges off a cliff into the ocean below.


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Friday, October 29, 2010

Marvel’s The Monster of Frankenstein, Part Three


The 19th Century adventures of Mary Shelley’s famous monster conclude with Issue 12 of Marvel’s The Frankenstein Monster as the new creative team of writer Doug Moench and artist Val Mayerik begin the drastic process of updating the series to the present-day.
The Monster is dying of a gunshot wound inflicted by Vincent Frankenstein in the previous issue. After surviving an attack by a pack of wolves, the Monster falls off a cliff into an icy river. The story then jumps ahead to 1973 as an oil freighter hits an iceberg containing the frozen body of the Monster. This being a comic book, the Monster never died of his gunshot wound since the ice preserved him in a state of suspended animation.
The sailor who spotted the Monster trapped in the ice has a brother who runs a carnival. They conspire to steal the body before it can be turned over to the authorities. We are then introduced to a young neurosurgeon, Dr. Derek McDowell who sees the Monster exhibited at the carnival and correctly concludes that it is the immortal creation of Victor Frankenstein.
From here we segue to the pages of Marvel’s more mature (as in free of the censorship imposed by the Comics Code Authority) comic magazine, Monsters Unleashed which first launched the Frankenstein 1973 feature in their second issue the preceding year under the aegis of Gary Friedrich and John Buscema. The events of The Frankenstein Monster # 12 would now be considered an example of ret-conning in order to retroactively satisfy the continuity established in the sister magazine.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Marvel’s The Monster of Frankenstein, Part Two


The 19th Century adventures of Mary Shelley’s famous monster following Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog’s adaptation of the classic novel continued in Issue 5 of Marvel’s The Monster of Frankenstein with another standalone filler story. This time out it is a more serviceable horror yarn that sees the Monster bravely rescuing a beautiful girl from being burned at the stake. She claims that her town is under the spell of a demon dressed in black that only she could resist. The Monster confronts and subdues her abusive father in his quest to end her persecution. Along the way, there are hints that the girl is not as virtuous as she initially appeared. The Monster learns at the climax that the girl is actually a werewolf. The demon in black is revealed to be the village priest. The story is a familiar yarn having been utilized in numerous other comics and short stories for several prior decades. Gary Friedrich’s script puts the tested story to good use, but this is one of Mike Ploog’s less-inspired issues as artist.
Ploog’s swan song with the series was Issue 6. The title was modified slightly to The Frankenstein Monster starting with this issue. Ploog’s artwork here is simply stunning recalling at times Barry Windsor-Smith’s run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian. His Frankenstein Monster also strongly resembles Herb Trimpe’s interpretation of The Incredible Hulk and yet, there is much that is undeniably Ploog’s own brilliant style throughout. This final issue for the artist is his best for the series and does much to underline what made his artwork so beloved by comics fans.
The issue offers the first major plot advancement of the series as the Monster arrives in Ingolstadt and reaches Castle Frankenstein. Unfortunately, Friedrich seems to envision Europe at the end of the 19th Century as still being mired in the Dark Ages. Castle Frankenstein has been taken over by a tyrannical despot known as the Colonel. His Neanderthal servants (they appear to be the same ones seen in the Arctic in Issue 4) are capturing innocent victims from Ingolstadt to feed to the giant spider that lies in the pit beneath the Castle. The Monster joins a heroic Lieutenant in dispatching the Colonel and killing the giant spider. Castle Frankenstein is destroyed in the process as the Monster’s search for Frankenstein’s descendant continues.
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Friday, October 15, 2010

Marvel’s The Monster of Frankenstein, Part One



Following the success of The Tomb of Dracula in 1972, Marvel Comics launched The Monster of Frankenstein the following year. Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog kicked the series off with a fairly faithful three-part adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel.

At the outset, Marvel determined to keep the Monster in period. This was an interesting approach considering the modern update Dracula had received. Vampires were an easier sell for the twentieth century as numerous film and television updates had already established contemporary vampire stories whereas the Frankenstein Monster somehow seemed an antiquated concept, despite the character’s ongoing appeal.

It is important to remember that at the time the series debuted, literary critics had not yet embraced Mary Shelley’s work as a classic. Shelley, like Bram Stoker, was looked down upon as low-brow and her work was not afforded serious consideration.

Television syndication of the Universal Frankenstein pictures of the 1930s and 1940s and the character’s transformation into the patriarch on the 1960s sitcom, The Munsters were largely responsible for its longevity. It would be several more years before Shelley’s cautionary tale would gain widespread acceptance as a modern myth whose resonance had not diminished with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Power of Myth-Making




Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus is a remarkable work. The book had its origin as a ghost story concocted during a weekend gathering of the literati on Lake Geneva. It became the modern myth best reflecting the ethical and moral issues that arise when technology consistently outpaces its maker’s ability to reconcile progress with the established strictures of society. It remains a classic cautionary tale that has lost none of its relevance nearly 200 years since its publication. Despite this fact, it is an intensely personal story with strong autobiographical touches.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in the late eighteenth century to outspoken liberal political theorist William Godwin and pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother died of complications giving birth to Mary. She grew up revering her parents’ work and was encouraged by it to ceaselessly question authority in any form. At age 16, Mary began an affair with one of her father’s most ardent followers, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who was five years her senior and married with small children.
Percy left his wife and family to travel the continent with Mary and her stepsister, Claire. He enjoyed affairs with both young women. Their unconventional living arrangement engendered much public outrage and ostracism wherever they went. Mary became pregnant with Percy’s child, but the little girl died shortly after birth. Mary’s father, who had criticized the institution of marriage in his writings, inexplicably turned his back on his unwed daughter for her licentious behavior.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON, Part Four: “Caverns of Mongo”





“Caverns of Mongo” was the fourth installment of Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between March 3 and April 14, 1935, “Caverns of Mongo” picked up the storyline where the third installment, “Tournaments of Mongo” left off with Emperor Ming having made Flash a royal King of Mongo and awarded him and Dale the savage uncharted cave kingdom of Kira to rule.

Flash and Dale are accompanied on their journey by Captain Khan and a squad of loyal Hawkmen who were ordered by Vultan to aid them. The kingdom of Kira is wonderfully prehistoric peopled with Neanderthal-like cliff-men, winged dactyl-bats, carnivorous plants, and a man-eating sauropod. This may be standard lost world fare, but with the introduction of the cannibalistic lizard-men as the true villain of the piece, there is no mistaking the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

While Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had popularized the concept of lost prehistoric lands that survived to the modern age, it was Burroughs who perfected the mixture of lost world and pseudo-science in both his Caspak and Pellucidar series. The latter in particular are the strongest influence on Alex Raymond here with the lizard-men portrayed as not only the more advanced culture, but a decidedly evil one. The scene where Flash (rendered unconscious in the lizard-men’s ambush) is taken to their lair and prepared as the tribe’s meal is particularly chilling.

Flash recovers consciousness, but is unable to escape as the entrance to the lizard-men’s lair is covered with rocks. Dale, Captain Khan and the other Hawkmen are gathered on the opposite side of the rock wall in a futile effort to rescue him. Dale manages to pass a nitro-gun through a small opening to Flash. Raymond has a nice bit of business here by carefully leaving to the reader’s imagination where Flash, dressed only in a loin cloth, hides the bulky nitro-gun.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON, Part Three: “Tournaments of Mongo”




“Tournaments of Mongo” was the third installment of Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between November 25, 1934 and February 24, 1935, “Tournaments of Mongo” picked up the storyline where the second installment, “Monsters of Mongo” left off with Dr. Zarkov being knighted by Vultan for saving the Hawkmen’s sky city from crashing to the ground.
Before Vultan can host Flash and Dale’s royal wedding, Emperor Ming and his daughter, Princess Aura arrive with Ming’s air fleet demanding Flash be handed over. Of course, Aura wants Flash for herself while her father wants to see him dead. Vultan invokes the ancient rite of tournament to determine Flash’s fate and Ming heartily agrees, certain it will mean the Earthman’s doom.
The obvious change beginning with this strip is that Alex Raymond’s artwork is being granted more space than before as Raymond decreases the strip from nine equally-sized panels to a more inventively designed seven panels to better showcase his stunning artwork which was steadily growing in both complexity and sophistication.
Raymond began to move away from word balloons in each panel to more formal narrative in small print at the top or bottom of the panel, often relegated to a single corner. This allowed Raymond to concentrate on majestic paintings depicting Mongo’s people and wildlife in all their glory.
Mongo was portrayed as a neo-Classical world of centurions, barbarians and mythological creatures juxtaposed with scientific advances such as rocket ships and jet-propelled cities. Alex Raymond’s enticing combination of the familiar and the fantastic touched an imaginative chord with readers the world over that continues to resonate to this day.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Two – “Monsters of Mongo”





“Monsters of Mongo” was the second installment of Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between April 15 and November 18, 1934, “Monsters of Mongo” picked up the storyline where the first installment, “Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo” left off with an unconscious Flash being rescued from Princess Aura by the Lion Men.

Alex Raymond really begins to hit his stride in portraying the diversity of life on Mongo in this second installment. Prince Thun and Dale Arden are prisoners of Ming’s soldiers. Thun’s father, King Jugrid has retaliated by destroying the kingdom of the Shark Men. Ming’s soldiers have, in turn, annihilated much of the Lion Men’s fleet.

Jugrid orders Aura’s execution. Flash fights to save her life and the two are rescued by Prince Barin. It is in Barin’s kingdom that Flash is at last reunited with Dr. Zarkov. Flash and Zarkov soon form an alliance with Barin and Aura as the unlikely quartet determine to overthrow Emperor Ming.

Of course, Aura being Ming’s daughter quickly betrays our heroes. The sequence culminates in one of the strip’s iconic images as Barin and Flash power the Electric Mole to burrow their way underground and crash through the floor of Ming’s palace just before he can wed Dale.

The influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ AT THE EARTH’S CORE is heavily felt in the Electric Mole sequence, but it is Burroughs’ JOHN CARTER stories that have the greater influence in Raymond’s sophisticated approach in revealing Mongo’s green god, Tao as a hoax.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

English Gothic: Britain Goes to the Movies



Jonathan Rigby’s ENGLISH GOTHIC (2000) is an excellent survey of British horror and science fiction films. Misleadingly subtitled A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA; the book focuses instead on the 20 year period from THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) through TO THE DEVIL, A DAUGHTER (1976) when British production companies like Hammer, Amicus, and Tigon consistently outperformed the Hollywood majors in producing the finest and most influential genre films.

Part of the book’s strength is not just Rigby’s detailed and chronological survey of nearly every genre film to come from the British Isles during these two decades, but the fact that he captures the social and economic factors that helped shape the pictures and, more importantly, the public’s reception to them.

The rise of the horror genre in film started with the German Expressionist classics of the silent era and the contemporary Lon Chaney and John Barrymore efforts in the States. The genre solidified with the phenomenal impact of Universal’s horror franchises of the 1930s and 1940s.

The interesting thing here is that the majority of these films remained unscreened or else limited to adult-only audiences in the UK where censorship was extremely puritanical in the first half of the last century.

The walls began to crumble in the mid-1950s when Britain made an unexpected advance in producing the most accomplished and mature genre films of the era. Hammer’s big screen adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial, THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT in 1955 was the signal point for this revolution. The film version dropped the “e” from XPERIMENT to emphasize the film’s Certificate X from the BBFC as a veritable badge of honor.

Rigby makes an excellent point that the success of Nigel Kneale’s scripts for this and his subsequent QUATERMASS sequels lies in crafting the threat of alien infiltration (rather than the invasions that dominated nightmares across the Atlantic) in the fashion of horrific tales of demonic possession. This provides both an interesting comparison to and contrast with the Cold War atomic fears and that dominated genre films in the US and Japan during the same decade.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Dracula: Five Not-So-Easy Pieces




In November and December 2009, my jaw was wired shut for eight weeks. During that time I read voraciously being able to accomplish little else. Among the many books I devoured were five Dracula-related titles.

DRACULA THE UN-DEAD (2009/Dutton) by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt achieves what it set out to do: bring income from Dracula back to the Stoker family and re-establish Dracula as the literary "property" of Stoker's heirs by creating a new franchise from the public domain characters.

I wanted to love this book. I wanted to view it as the authorized sequel to DRACULA, the true heir to Bram Stoker's literary classic. The trouble is one cannot make that claim when the sequel tries so hard to undo everything in the original.

Rather than pay homage to Bram Stoker's work, the authors spend nearly 400 pages proving to us that everything Stoker wrote was wrong. Prince Dracula (Stoker was even wrong about his title, it seems he wasn't a Count) was a "good" vampire working for God (a bizarre interpretation of the historical Vlad Dracula’s papal honor – later rescinded - of Defender of the Faith) and the real villain of DRACULA was the historical Countess Elizabeth Bathory who, it turns out, was a vampire and was also Jack the Ripper.

That's pretty much the plot of this overwrought sequel. If those ideas excite you, you'll enjoy the book. If you're a Stoker purist, you'll be left in a state of shock.

Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt fill their book with bad ideas borrowed from the very sequels they decry as having tarnished Bram Stoker's reputation for decades. It’s all here jumbled together in one bloated unstructured mess: Mina and Dracula's torrid affair, Dracula's connection to Jack the Ripper, Dracula as the tragic hero rather than the Prince of Darkness Stoker intended, etc.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Excellent Account of the Making of a Classic



Anyone who knows me is aware of how much the work of Blake Edwards means to me. I deviate from my usual genre for a brief review of a newly published account of the making of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S.

FIFTH AVENUE, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson is a breezy and enjoyable read. It is quite a different book than his first, A SPLURCH IN THE KISSER (an examination of Blake Edwards' films as a director from 1955 to 1993) and, in my view, a superior one. Wasson did phenomenal research (fully cited in his detailed notes) and pulls together much that is familiar and much that I don't believe has ever been printed before about BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. The first half concerns Truman Capote and his sources for the novella (both from his own childhood and his friends' lives) and the second half concerns the film's development, production, and release. While the "Dawn of the Modern Woman" angle is present throughout, it is not over-emphasized as it is in the media promotion of the book. This is a fairly straightforward factual novel with real life characters given dialogue that usually is drawn from their own recollections or others. There is a fair amount of gossip, but it is never salacious. The author's access to Paramount's production files and his conversations with participants or their spouses (particularly Blake Edwards' first wife, Patricia Snell whose comments and insights are never short of illuminating) turns up a few gems that would otherwise have remained obscure. His diligence points to a dedication that was lacking in SPLURCH. I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon – Part One: “Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo”




Alex Raymond created Flash Gordon for King Features Syndicate to compete with the successful science fiction strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Raymond’s creation was decidedly more space fantasy than science fiction combining elements borrowed from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, Alexandre Dumas, and Anthony Hope to great effect. Flash Gordon debuted January 7, 1934 with the strip, “Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo” which would be serialized each Sunday through April 15, 1934.

The strip kicked off with an exciting documentary-style depiction of an unforeseen catastrophe assailing our world. An unknown planet mysteriously appears in our solar system and is hurtling rapidly toward Earth. Destruction seems unavoidable. We are quickly introduced to a scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov who is rapidly completing a rocket ship which he plans to man on a suicide mission to try and divert the oncoming planet from Earth’s trajectory.

“Flash” Gordon is a Yale-educated world-renowned polo player (I’m sure we can all name a handful of world-renowned polo players). He and a young woman named Dale Arden are the only known survivors of a plane struck down by a meteor heralding from the approaching planet. Flash and Dale parachute just outside of Dr. Zarkov’s observatory. Paranoid from overwork, Zarkov pulls a gun on the startled plane crash survivors and forces them to accompany him on his suicide mission to space. The first installment ends with Zarkov’s rocket ship on a collision course with the rapidly hurtling planet.

The following week saw Zarkov lose his nerve and attempt to strangle Flash (who now believes their suicide mission is Earth’s only hope). Flash easily overpowers Zarkov while the rocket ship crashes into a mountain not far from a futuristic city. Flash survives, Dale is unconscious, and the reader presumes Zarkov is dead as a dinosaur menaces Flash and Dale as our hero first sets foot on alien soil.

Week Three saw the timely arrival of a second dinosaur to inadvertently save Flash and Dale. A rocket ship arrives from the futuristic city. Flash and Dale are captured by what appear to be Asians who take them to the city where they meet the unnamed Emperor of the Universe (a blatant Fu Manchu clone) who decides to marry Dale and sends Flash to the arena where he is to battle the Neanderthal-like “Red Monkey Men of Mongo.” This first use of the name Mongo makes it unclear that this is the name of the planet as opposed to a continent. The city is a nice mix of anachronisms with futuristic gadgetry existing alongside Roman-style decadence.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Dracula’s Daughter: From Script to Screen



The success of Universal’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi made not only a cycle of similar horror films inevitable, it virtually demanded the studio turn their attention to a direct sequel.

As had happened with Lon Chaney in the silent era, MGM was quick to top Universal at its own game. They secured the services of Lugosi and director Tod Browning for a remake of Chaney’s silent classic, London After Midnight (1927). Browning had directed that notorious lost classic and having Lugosi fill Chaney’s shoes as the faux vampire seemed an inspired choice.

Browning’s remake, Mark of the Vampire would wing its way to theaters in 1935. Joining Lugosi’s Count Mora was Carroll Borland as his incestuous daughter, Luna. Borland was heavily featured in publicity photos with Lugosi despite not having much of an acting career (the following year she was reduced to a bit part in the first of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon serials for Universal), but her portrayal of Luna was enormously influential on the cinematic female vampires who followed.

Borland contributed more than just the definitive screen depiction of a female vampire, however. Several years before Mark of the Vampire was born, she began a longstanding (and allegedly unconsummated) relationship with Bela Lugosi. She remained obsessed with the actor long after his death and had written a lengthy treatment for a Dracula sequel to star both of them entitled Countess Dracula.

Philip J. Riley published the final version of the treatment (which Borland tinkered with for decades) as part of his MagicImage FilmBooks series dedicated to Universal Horrors. Lugosi tried and failed to have the treatment produced on stage or on screen as a legitimate sequel. It remains Borland’s only writing credit and was published just after the former actress’ death in 1994.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

ROBERT E. HOWARD: ANATOMY OF A CREATIVE CRISIS




“Beyond the Sunrise” is the unofficial title afforded an unfinished Kull story that did not see print until over forty years after the author’s death. Its significance is due largely to the fact that it was the first of four widely differing attempts to continue the Kull series following the publication of both “The Shadow Kingdom” and “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” in Weird Tales in 1929.

Robert E. Howard starts the story off with a bored Kull sitting on his throne listening to a rather dull tale of the Valusian noblewoman, Lala-ah who has run off with her foreign lover leaving the nobleman she was promised to waiting at the altar. The barbarian king’s pride is piqued once he learns the foreigner insulted him behind his back. He then readily agrees to lead a posse to retrieve the noblewoman and restore his and his nation’s honor.

I was about as enthusiastic as Kull when I first started the story and thought the Atlantean was acting like a childish oaf for getting his nose out of joint just because a foreigner called him a sissy when he wasn’t around to defend himself.

Even with the weakest Robert E. Howard stories, the imagery he employs in crafting the tale redeems any failings. Howard waxes eloquent when Kull and his men visit neighboring kingdoms and the king stands upon a mountaintop overlooking the valley below and ponders the difference of the topography from his native Atlantis. Kull draws parallels on how the lay of the land is reflective of the endurance of its people.

Howard continues this introspective spell in having the king measure himself against the commander of his troops. Surprisingly, Howard has his hero find his own character lacking in a strict departure from the norms of the heroic genre. Kull subsequently reflects on the unfairness that his commander can rise no higher in the ranks because he is of foreign birth. Kull, himself a barbarian usurper to the throne, is also a foreigner and an illegitimate monarch to boot.

That Howard has drawn a deliberate parallel with the inequality of arranged marriages in the plight of the fugitive Lala-ah to the inequality of the rules limiting his commander’s station is beyond Kull’s understanding, but certainly not the reader.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Supernatural Reality: Stoker’s Dracula Hidden in Plain Sight




Most literary criticism of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is limited to treating the work as one of the more blatant examples of Victorian sexual repression. A few more adventurous critics are eager to play Freudian detective and speculate what the book reveals about the author’s possible sexual feelings for Sir Henry Irving or his alleged serial infidelity with East End prostitutes.

Rare is the literary critic who looks at the recurring theme throughout the book of the difficulty modern man faces in accepting the supernatural as reality.

From its first page to its last, this is what Stoker is most interested in shaping his story around. The book has become so ingrained in our culture that millions who have never read it have absorbed the gist of the plot from the past century of adaptations, rip-off’s, and parodies in film, television, theater, and books.

This is part of the reason why the concept is missed, but the greater reason is the one Stoker illustrates time and again in his book – we deliberately ignore what we can’t comfortably explain.

Stoker’s Dracula is a very modern novel. The author delights in presenting the latest gadgetry, scientific theory, and medical advancement (several of them were only in their pioneering stage at the time of publication) in sharp contrast with the Old World’s superstition which threatens to overwhelm the modern world’s fragile constructs at every turn of the page.

The story is initially told through the eyes of Jonathan Harker, a fine upstanding Anglican solicitor with a solid career path and a fiancée waiting to marry him once he returns home from his visit to Transylvania to conclude a real estate transaction with an Old World nobleman.

Harker’s journey is one he initially delights in as a superior modern Englishman. He has an eye for detail and loves the simple life of the European peasants who appear to have been forgotten by time. He only becomes at ill at ease when their Catholic iconography and belief in Satan as a tangible force of evil upsets his worldview.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Bram Stoker’s Dracula in Comics, Part One – The Novel Adaptations



While Bram Stoker’s infamous vampire count has been prevalent in comic books whenever the prevailing bluenoses of each generation have deigned to allow horror books to be printed, there have been surprisingly few attempts to faithfully adapt the classic novel in comic book form.

Classics Illustrated tackled the book shortly before Dr. Frederick Wertham got his dirty little hands on the comic business and did his best to keep the children of the world safe from twisted people just like himself. The Classics Illustrated adaptation was professionally produced, if somewhat anemic. Marvel Comics would later reprint this edition in the 1970s with new cover art to make it appear consistent with Gene Colan’s magnificent portrayal of the character for Marvel’s long-running Tomb of Dracula title. Happily, a superior adaptation was brewing in Marvel’s companion magazine, Dracula Lives.

Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano teamed up to provide a faithful, elegant, and leisurely-paced adaptation of the Stoker novel as an ongoing feature in the black & white comic magazine. Unfortunately, sales were not on their side and the title was cancelled. The one unpublished chapter they had completed turned up in the pages of another magazine title, Legion of Monsters before it too was cancelled. Their masterful adaptation was left incomplete for nearly thirty years.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Fu Manchu in Comics



From his first appearance in print in the pages of The Story-Teller in October 1912, Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind, Dr. Fu Manchu took the world by storm. While Rohmer would complete three novels featuring the character between 1912 and 1917, the Devil Doctor would extend his domain to include film and comics in the fourteen years before Rohmer bowed to commercial demand and revived the series.

Leo O’Mealia was responsible for adapting Rohmer’s three original novels into a daily newspaper strip, Fu Manchu from 1930 to 1931 while Warner Oland was occupied starring as the character in three feature films and a short for Paramount. Oland, incidentally, was the second screen Fu Manchu following Harry Agar Lyons in the 1920’s. The comic strips were later colored and edited as a back-up feature in the pages of Detective Comics which top-lined a new comic character in the pulp tradition known as The Batman.

Despite the fact that Rohmer went to great pains to make it clear that the Devil Doctor was clean-shaven, the very first magazine illustrators to tackle the character were responsible for grafting upon his terrifying visage the stereotypical Chinese moustache known today as a Fu Manchu.

O’Mealia presented Fu Manchu devoid of facial hair in his daily strip, but in place of Rohmer’s famous description of “a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan,” the artist depicted a repulsive hunchbacked gargoyle. The resulting figure is not unlike the monstrous Soviet villains in Jack Kirby’s Cold War-era work for Atlas and Marvel or, for that matter, Kirby’s earlier Golden Age portrayal of hideously inhuman Japanese soldiers in his work for Timely Comics.

Despite the unsettling and dehumanizing portrayal of the titular villain, O’Mealia’s strips are surprisingly faithful to the original text. The exception being the final strips in 1931 which offered a more traditional wrap-up to the storyline than any Sax Rohmer book would ever do.

The most accessible source for sampling Leo O’Mealia’s Fu Manchu strip is Malibu Graphic’s trade paperback collection which features two non-sequential episodes. DC Comics has reprinted several Golden Age issues of Detective Comics which reprint the odd installment of the colored strip, but nothing approaching the full run has ever been reprinted. The one Holy Grail for collectors would be an Australian magazine which dedicated an entire issue to reprinting a sequential storyline. Surprisingly, the internet offers little information on this publication and copies are scarce on the collector’s market making it a highly sought after collectible.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Eleven – “The Knocking on the Door”




“The Knocking on the Door” was the tenth and final installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu. By the time it was published in THE STORY-TELLER in July 1913, it had already appeared a few weeks earlier in book form as Chapters 27-30 of Rohmer’s first novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for its subsequent U. S. publication).

“The Knocking on the Door” starts off with Dr. Petrie and Nayland Smith grieving the terrible loss of Inspector Weymouth. There is little comfort in Weymouth dying a hero despite his having taken Dr. Fu-Manchu with him to a watery grave. The Inspector was denied his dignity during his supreme act of self-sacrifice for he died a victim of Dr. Fu-Manchu’s madness-inducing bacilli.

In his anguish, Nayland Smith gives vent to one of his most hateful pronouncements, “Pray God the river has that yellow Satan….I would sacrifice a year of my life to see his rat’s body on the end of a grapping iron!”

Time and again, it is Nayland Smith and no other character who gives voice to the racist remarks that make contemporary readers squirm in discomfort. Considering that Smith is Rohmer’s imperialist character – a colonial administrator for the Crown – it is likely this was a deliberate decision on the part of the author to paint the character as intolerant in contrast with the narrator who has fallen in love with an Egyptian. As the series progresses, Rohmer’s narrators will frequently enter into interracial relationships in spite of their association with the bitter and misogynistic Smith.

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Ten – “The Spores of Death”



“The Spores of Death” was the penultimate installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu. First published in THE STORY-TELLER in June 1913, it later comprised Chapters 24-26 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for U. S. publication).

The story starts off appropriately with our narrator, Dr. Petrie acknowledging the storyline is drawing to a close and apologizing (very nearly breaking the literary equivalent of the Fourth Wall in so doing) for his haste in not better detailing characters and incidents as he was forced to maintain the breakneck pace of the events as they transpired.

Dr. Petrie then spends some much welcome time discussing the mysterious origins of Dr. Fu-Manchu. Petrie suggests the name (ridiculous to modern, informed readers) is an assumed one and disassociates him with the Young China movement (the Republicans who came to power after the fall of the Manchu Dynasty) as he had speculated early on.

The story itself leads the reader on a false trail (as we have seen previously, Rohmer relished violating genre expectations). A raid is conducted on Dr. Fu-Manchu’s Limehouse base of operations where Petrie is reunited with his beloved Karamaneh and her brother, Aziz. Just when the raid begins, Petrie, Nayland Smith, and Inspector Weymouth are forced to watch in horror as the Scotland Yard men walk into a trap in Fu-Manchu’s fungi cellars. As the poisonous spores bring about the rapid and painful death of Weymouth’s men, Dr. Fu-Manchu discards his honorable demeanor and reveals himself as a madman shouting, “They die like flies….I am the god of destruction!”

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Friday, July 2, 2010

DRACULA:From Script to Screen




Dracula by Bram Stoker frequently vies with The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett as my favorite book. Both stories are archetypes of their genres and despite endless imitations, almost every attempt to emulate the originals falls wide of the margin. The current vogue for Twilight and its many imitations may be the worst misinterpretation of Stoker’s classic yet, despite its enviable success among pre-pubescent girls (and their emotional equals). The ignorance of most Twilight fans as to how their heroine earned her first name led me to revisit the seminal Universal Horror, Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi in an iconic performance that did much to secure Stoker’s novel its hard-won place of acceptance as a literary classic.
The resulting film owed much to the stage plays which took the West End and Broadway by storm during the Roaring Twenties. Film historian David Skal has gifted the world with several excellent books and DVD bonus features and commentaries chronicling this once untapped goldmine’s transition from page to stage to screen. Film buff Philip J. Riley has done one better (actually twice better) by sharing with film lovers not one, but two volumes collecting the various story treatments and screenplay drafts that were languishing in Universal’s files for decades.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Nine – “The Golden Flask”



“The Golden Flask” was the eighth installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu. First published in THE STORY-TELLER in May 1913, it later comprised Chapters 21-23 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for U. S. publication). Rohmer added brief linking material to the start of the story for its book publication in an effort to tie the story closer together with its immediate predecessor. “The Golden Flask” is unique in not being centered upon Dr. Petrie’s infatuation with Karamaneh, but rather upon our heroes’ obsession with bringing Dr. Fu-Manchu to justice.
The story harkens back to “The Zayat Kiss” in being set in motion with Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie correctly identifying Henry Stradwick, Lord Southery as the next target of assassination, but being too late to prevent his death. Lord Southery’s physician, Sir Frank Narcombe believes the peer to have expired from heart failure. Oddly, Smith states that neither he nor Petrie represents the official police. A reason for this blatant deception is never given and must be concluded as an error on Rohmer’s part. Reference is made to both Smith and Petrie possessing a supernatural ability to detect Fu-Manchu’s presence at the scene of Lord Southery’s death despite the absence of any clues pointing to foul play. When Petrie describes Smith as looking like “a man consumed by a burning fever,” the reader is completely willing to suspend disbelief and go along with Rohmer’s frenzied paranoia. It is the same mania that captivated Petrie (and, by extension, the reader) at the start of “The Zayat Kiss.”
Feeling powerless, Petrie retreats to a used bookstore to research Chinese secret societies (one can’t help but suspect this is art imitating life for Rohmer) where he bumps into Karamaneh. This is actually a brilliant touch in spite of the improbability of their meeting for, until now, Petrie has been oddly silent about the object of his affections. Perhaps recognizing that he had delayed character development for too many episodes, Rohmer has Karamaneh lead Petrie to Dr. Fu-Manchu’s current base of operations in the East End. Here, we meet her delicate and tragic younger brother, Aziz who is kept in a cataleptic trance from which only Fu-Manchu can release him using a special serum.
Rohmer has Petrie express surprising distrust of Karamaneh as he feels powerless (once again) for allowing himself to be led by a woman “whose beauty, whose charm , truly might mask the cunning of a serpent.” This uncharacteristic reticence is perhaps best explained when Petrie is faced with boyish Aziz who is his sister’s near twin with his delicate effeminate features. The difference being that Aziz is portrayed as the uncorrupted victim and not the duplicitous partner in crime like his sister. Rohmer makes a startling role reversal for the genre by having the young boy take the place of the damsel in distress with Karamaneh portrayed more as a femme fatale for the purpose of the mood that the author wishes to convey for the story. It is a curious move, but not without precedent in 1913 (witness the bizarre gender identity issues in Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s contemporaneous Fantomas).
Petrie departs Fu-Manchu’s East End headquarters with a vial of the mysterious elixir courtesy of the much-maligned Karamaneh. He tells Smith all he has seen and a police raid is planned until Smith, acting on an unexplained impulse, resolves to return to Lord Southery’s home. Smith’s motivation becomes apparent shortly as he demands Henderson, Lord Southery’s solicitor show him to the crypt where the peer’s body rests. Smith has wisely deduced that since Dr. Fu-Manchu has a catalepsy-inducing drug at his disposal, he has used it to fake Lord Southery’s death and intends to reclaim him and press him into his service (as Smith speculates has already been the fate of Stradwick’s allegedly deceased German counterpart, Von Homber). Petrie, possessing the mysterious elixir to the drug, is able to revive Lord Southery just seconds before Dr. Fu-Manchu and his servants arrive at the crypt. Fu-Manchu escapes Smith and the story ends with the promise of an exciting raid upon Fu-Manchu’s East End hideout for the following month’s installment. Rohmer has regained his pace with this story and is bringing the plot threads together with great panache. The reader is left eager to learn What Will Happen Next.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Eight – “Andaman—Second!”














“Andaman—Second!” was the seventh installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu first published in THE STORY-TELLER in April 1913. The story would later comprise Chapters 18-20 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for U.S. publication). Rohmer returned the series to its Holmesian roots by mining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” for inspiration. Conan Doyle’s case concerns stolen submarine plans taken from Cadogan West while Rohmer’s story involves stolen aero-torpedo plans taken from Norris West. “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” was published in 1912, just a few months before Rohmer wrote “Andaman—Second!” and shows that Sherlock Holmes was still very much a model for the Fu-Manchu series at this early stage.

The story starts out with Dr. Petrie in the final throes of fighting his feelings for Karamaneh. He tries telling himself that slavery in the 20th Century is an impossibility, but he cannot doubt Karamaneh’s account of her tragic life of bondage and enforced servitude. Try as he might to convince himself that she is too foreign to his values and culture, that she has been jaded and corrupted by her life and experiences, he cannot deny his heart. The reader’s expectation at this point is that Rohmer will bring the two lovers together once Petrie wins her freedom from Dr. Fu-Manchu. Of course, it is worth remembering that Rohmer delights in breaking with tradition. Happy Endings are never assured in his fiction.

Following this introspective beginning, Rohmer moves the plot into high gear by having Nayland Smith conduct Petrie to a Limehouse storefront which is a literal front for an Oriental nightclub. Rohmer’s prose is rushed at this point and it takes a bit for the reader to learn that Smith and Petrie are disguised as Turks complete with fez and make-up to darken Petrie’s complexion. The setting is enjoyable, although under-written, as Rohmer gives us an enticing conglomeration of foreign cultures. Petrie marvels at Smith’s ability to speak dozens of foreign languages like a native and he is apparently convincing enough to gain entry to the nightclub with its African, Arab, Egyptian, Greek, Turkish, and Chinese clientele. No sooner are our heroes seated at a table, then they spy Karamaneh and the chase is on with only Karamaneh’s voice giving a cryptic warning of “Andaman—Second” to Petrie to serve as a clue.

Smith and Inspector Weymouth are both quite slow to puzzle out what “Andaman—Second” may refer to, but they can be forgiven for the theft of Norris West’s aero-torpedo plans by Chinese agents that same night is reason enough to serve as a distraction. The story quickly shifts to West’s hotel room where the aviator is found heavily drugged with hashish. Rohmer indulges some of his finest psychotropic fantasies here by having West reveal he gave away the combination to the safe where the plans were kept to his Chinese visitors and saw the words appear before his face as if they were written in the air. As he did previously with DeQuincey’s Confessions of an Opium-Eater, Rohmer is quick to have his characters cite authors and works to lend credence to his fanciful claims – in this instance he has Smith and Petrie discuss Bayard Taylor’s The Land of the Saracen and Moreau’s Hashish Hallucinations to confirm Norris West’s incredible experiences under the influence of the drug.

Somewhere along the way the truth has dawned on Smith and he reveals to Petrie that the Andaman is a ship of the Oriental Navigation Company about to leave London en route to China. The race is on to the docks. If the veteran mystery reader expects an unmasking and retrieval of the stolen aero-torpedo plans, Rohmer is determined to confound their expectations. Smith and Petrie board the ship and prepare to search the passengers. They turn up nothing. As the Andaman sets sail, they hear the disembodied voice of Dr. Fu-Manchu remark, “Another victory for China, Mr. Smith.” Much like the disembodied warning from an unseen Karamaneh of “Andaman—Second!” at the outset of the story, this similar ending coupled with Norris West’s peculiar viewing of his own words emerging from his mouth and written in the air in front of him, leaves the reader with a greater sense of fantasy and the Music Hall tradition of theatrical Oriental magicians than rational criminal investigations.

The story is diverting enough, but Rohmer has little here to advance the plot. “Andaman—Second!” stands as a marking time story and little else. The reader is left eager to reach a resolution with Fu-Manchu dead or behind bars and Karamaneh united with Dr. Petrie at last. American and British readers in 1913 had every reason to expect a traditional ending to the serial. They were also bound to have their expectations shattered by an ambitious young thriller writer determined to make a name for himself with his first published novel.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Frankenstein and R. J. Myers’ Domination Fantasies



A couple weeks ago I reviewed R. J. Myers’ The Cross of Frankenstein. It was the respected political commentator’s first foray into fiction. He followed it with a sequel, 1976’s The Slave of Frankenstein and despite the promise of a third book, his only other genre efforts were a late seventies soft-core vampire title and a privately-published guide to blood-drinking as an alternative lifestyle. I always feel a pang of guilt when I come down hard on a fellow pastiche writer. I’ve been on the receiving end of disappointed Sax Rohmer and Conan Doyle fans who felt I had no business continuing the adventures of characters they love. At the same time, I believe I have been fair and honest in my assessments when reviewing pastiches. I have the utmost respect for Joe Gores, Michael Hardwick, Cay Van Ash, and Freda Warrington as writers who tried hard to stay true to the original author in terms of style and spirit. I can still enjoy Peter Tremayne and Basil Copper who, despite falling short of the mark, can still spin an entertaining yarn. Consequently, I feel justified when I confine Myers to the lowest pit of literary Hell alongside Ian Holt and Richard Jaccoma for The Slave of Frankenstein, while a very different beast than Myers’ first effort, is equally contemptible.
The book begins thirty years after the events of The Cross of Frankenstein. Our dishonorable hero, Victor Saville found himself wanted for the murder of the detestable Mr. Greene shortly after the close of the first book. Wisely, Saville sought legal counsel and confessed a full account of the incredible events that transpired. Strangely, his legal counsel didn’t believe that self-defense when dealing with a murderous political revolutionary allied with the Frankenstein Monster would help his case so he advised his client to change his name and become an American citizen. The trick is that the new surname Victor chose was Frankenstein which rather defeats the purpose of going into hiding since any surviving members of the religious cult and private militia knew Saville to be Frankenstein’s son. Sure enough, over the next thirty years, the Monster (yes, the Monster) sends him a series of harassing letters to his new home. Victor chooses to ignore these and considers his father’s creation to be nothing more than an irritating crank. You know I can’t think of a worse portrayal of Mary Shelley’s dignified and awesome literary character than turning him into a nineteenth century prank caller. The years have passed and Victor married, fathered a son and daughter (Victor and Victoria, naturally), became a widower and finally gets pissed off that the Monster is now threatening to do nasty things to Victoria (now a student at Oberlin College) so he decides at the ripe old age of 60 to journey to Virginia and kill his father’s other son once and for all.
Victor pays a visit to his less than credible legal counsel to square things away since he fully expects to perish in killing the Monster. Wouldn’t you know it, his mouthpiece has another client, a U.S. Senator who is concerned that his past support of the imprisoned abolitionist John Brown will spell poison to his political career. The mouthpiece asks Victor to do a little espionage business while down in Virginia and make sure all evidence of the Senator’s unwise support of the abolitionist cause be (if you’ll excuse the expression) white-washed. Victor heartily agrees to do one last good deed before killing the Monster.
Upon his arrival in Virginia, Secret Agent Frankenstein keeps his rendezvous with his contact, Major Thomas Harrison. Harrison is a peculiar character, a slave owner who believes the real slaves are the working class for they are not guaranteed three square meals a day and safe lodging over their heads like the slaves he keeps. Myers devotes an entire chapter to this nice bit of Marxist philosophy about the evils of capitalism and how the slaves never recognized that they had it so good. Victor is swayed by the arguments to at least strongly sympathize with this unique spin on the Marxist cause.
Despite being 60 years old, Victor is no less randy than he was as a youth. He first sets his lustful gaze upon Harrison’s mulatto slave, Dolores (later revealed to be Harrison’s illegitimate daughter), but he also is attracted to Harrison’s “nubile” 16 year-old stepdaughter, Hope (later revealed to be carrying her stepfather’s baby), and during his first night under Harrison’s roof, he beds Mrs. Harrison for a marathon all-night session replete with hilariously comical descriptions that Myers obviously finds impressive such as “once the first fire had been smothered in her lathered loins” and “fondling my organ and kneading it slowly back to life, like yeast rising in bread.” One can consider it a small mercy that he never completed his third Frankenstein sequel as the book jacket promises.
I did note with some interest that Dolores is portrayed as attractive, intelligent, and articulate while the male slaves are all given insulting dialogue better suited to Stepin Fetchit such as “I’s cotched a cold” and “I’s heah to hep ‘lores.” Victor is barely able to control himself around Dolores the very next morning after sleeping with his host’s wife. Myers notes that Victor “cursed this searing lust that rose like lava from a long-dormant volcano. What searing damage it might yet do was beyond my immediate imagination.” Having read two of his books, I sincerely doubt much is beyond Myers’ imagination.
As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Major Harrison is in league with the Monster and they plan on liberating John Brown before his execution. Their grand scheme involves transporting Harrison’s slaves and over 200 recaptured runaway slaves from the Underground Railroad via train (apparently, Myers misses the irony here) to Harrison’s new plantation where their body parts will be harvested to make a slave army of Frankenstein monsters that will revolutionize society, free the working man from the yoke of capitalist slavery, and end slavery forever (once they’ve harvested enough body parts from the slaves, that is).
Of course, nothing goes according to plan as Victor is liberated in place of John Brown in a plot twist that would make even Alexandre Dumas cringe for Victor and Brown look exactly alike. The conspirators end up with Victor while Brown meets his fate. The ending gives us not one, but two final ends for the Monster. Poor Hope, pregnant with her stepfather’s baby and unwilling to let Victor abort her child, gets killed off by the Monster. Victor cowardly abandons Dolores and Mrs. Harrison to save his own hide when the Monster sets fire to Harrison’s house. Mrs. Harrison dies in the flames and Dolores rejects Victor’s subsequent marriage proposal leaving him alone with his daughter, his unreliable lawyer, and the fear that the Monster still lives.
Early in the book, Victor muses over the literary injustice that Uncle Tom’s Cabin (“a hastily-written newspaper serial”) is selling in the millions while Moby Dick, a work of seven years’ labor is only selling in the hundreds. Given that Myers notes that he spent six years writing The Cross of Frankenstein in that book’s foreword, it is perhaps telling that he finds less value in the abolitionist work than in an admittedly classic literary yarn rich in Biblical allusions and sexual metaphors for it is the same path he tries to walk with his second, more ambitious Frankenstein sequel. Myers' book is top heavy in Biblical quotes and Dantean allusions that sadly fail to lend any weight or credence to the author’s protracted and offensive view of sexual politics and race relations. William F. Buckley, Jr. hailed Myers’ Frankenstein sequels as “a tour de force of great skill and daring” on the back cover. I found both books to be risible at best and sickening at worst. “Here endeth the lesson.”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Seven – “Karamaneh”



“Karamaneh” was the sixth installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu first published in THE STORY-TELLER in March 1913. The story would later comprise Chapters 16 and 17 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for U.S. publication). The story opens with Nayland Smith, Dr. Petrie, and Inspector Weymouth preparing a dragnet around the area where Dr. Fu-Manchu is known to have a base of operations. They have no illusion that they will capture the doctor himself, but hope to round up enough of his minions to deal a significant blow to the enemy.

Smith and Petrie are among a dozen Scotland Yard men combing the area. As they pass by a gypsy encampment, Smith recognizes one of the gypsies as a disguised dacoit who is wanted for murder in Burma (where Smith serves as police commissioner). While they fail to apprehend the man, they succeed in capturing the female gypsy before she can escape. The disguised gypsy woman turns out to be the mysterious slave girl who has repeatedly saved Petrie’s life since Smith first involved him in the affair. Rohmer does an excellent job in conveying Petrie’s mixed feelings of compulsion and revulsion when faced with this dangerous and exotic woman.

The reader shares Petrie’s ambivalence towards this complex character. She is beautiful and graced with a foreign otherness that defies precise identification and she has risked her own life several times in order to save Petrie, yet she has also willingly participated in the murder of countless other innocent men. Rohmer makes much of her unabashed stare that few men would be able to meet. Petrie is fascinated with her, but also feels ashamed that the object of his affection is opposed to all that defines a British subject at this point in time.

Much has been made of the power of sex appeal in Rohmer’s stories. It is certainly true that his fiction was more sexually-charged than many of his contemporaries, but it is not really what is at work here. The sexuality is part of the larger canvas that blankets Rohmer’s fiction. His characters defy the simple categorizations of Edwardian viewpoints. His protagonists are flawed and his villains frequently display honorable, even admirable qualities.

Nayland Smith seems representative of all that is considered proper in the British Empire: a colonial administrator who knows right from wrong and never wavers in his mission. Yet, strangely it is Smith’s re-entrance into a simple suburban doctor’s world that turns it upside down not in bringing excitement to what was routine (as is the case with Sherlock Holmes’ introduction to Watson with his previously dull and ordinary existence), but in coloring Petrie’s worldview in shades of gray where once everything appeared to be black and white. Rohmer’s great strength as an author lies in upsetting his reader’s perceptions of morality and loyalty. His characters end up following their hearts and finding their own moral compass for the world they know is an illusion compared with the larger, more complex world outside Britain’s dreams of a global empire.

Karamaneh, as we learn she is called in this story, appears at first to be the classic femme fatale. One can detect the prototype of Bond girls yet to come in these stories that a youthful and impressionable Ian Fleming devoured. What sets Rohmer’s work apart from most pulp fiction is that his Bad Girls can also be Good Girls and that their seeming immorality can be a direct result of their past or ongoing victimization. This is the case in Karamaneh, the girl of apparent dual Egyptian and European parentage who is alternately merciful and merciless as she sees best. She is the sex slave who is also the willing victim.

Rohmer has previously shown us that the life of the exotic Arabian Nights slave girl is also one of cruelty and abuse. He now complicates matters by showing us that as a tool of her master; Karamaneh is very effective provided her emotions remain detached. This was heady stuff in 1913. Rohmer gives us mature themes that he handles with surprising taste and deftness that allowed it to breeze by the heads of those readers who were less worldly.

Karamaneh is openly critical of Smith and Scotland Yard’s effectiveness, pointing to those they have failed to save over the course of the previous five stories as justification of why she refuses to place her fate in their hands and cooperate fully with the authorities. Of course, Petrie and the reader also learn it is the life of her brother that keeps her bound to Dr. Fu-Manchu. She speaks again of their older sister who died when they were children being transported by Arab slavers across the desert. Petrie considers the thought of a flourishing slave trade in 1913 to be fantastic, but Rohmer clearly wants his readers to accept the reality of such situations no matter how removed it appeared to the average English or American at the time.

Rohmer has taken the stuff of fantasy and injected heavy doses of reality, but not at the expense of his reader’s enjoyment. That is walking a tight rope for even an experienced author, it was quite an achievement considering this was to be Rohmer’s first published novel. Despite the episodic nature of the first three Fu-Manchu mysteries, Rohmer set the bar high with complex characterizations that challenged his readers to think outside the conventional parameters their society was built upon. Without the racist stereotyping and cardboard characters of the many adaptations in other media weighing it down, the series might rival Sherlock Holmes today in terms of both popularity and critical assessment if its strength were measured on Rohmer’s literary accomplishments alone.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

R. J. Myers and the Crucifixion of Mary Shelley



Robert J. Myers is a study in contradictions. A veteran CIA operative, he became the publisher of The New Republic. In the mid-1970s, Myers authored two sequels to Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein. Having a longstanding interest in literary pastiches, I tracked down these two long out-of-print titles and recently read the first, The Cross of Frankenstein (1975). The prolific nature of the Universal and Hammer Frankenstein movies was understandable, but the original novel has always seemed more challenging to extend – even more so than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Neither story demands literary sequels, nor did their authors choose to pursue them – a fact that makes the ambitions of prospective continuation authors all the more difficult to realize with any degree of success.

Mary Shelley’s original reads like a modern fable. The scientist who transgresses nature’s laws is destroyed by the abomination he brought into existence with his own hand. It is the same fable Michael Crichton fashioned nearly 200 years later into Jurassic Park. Shelley’s alternate title for the book, The Modern Prometheus is frequently forgotten, but it is critical to an understanding of how the novel differs from the 1931 Universal horror classic that imbued itself in the public consciousness. The monster of Shelley’s novel may be lacking a flat head and neck bolts, but he makes up for it in spades with his philosophical yearning for his own place in the universe and with the father/creator who abandoned him.

Once the artificial man resolves to destroy his creator, his unrelenting thirst for vengeance leads us to the dire ending where the monster watches his creator expire on his death-bed and resolves to commit suicide thereafter. No matter how many times I’ve read the story, I never doubt the monster’s resolution to end his miserable existence. His purpose has been exhausted. God creates man. Man creates Artificial Man in an attempt to become God. Artificial Man destroys his Creator and then ceases to have a reason to exist. This is more than a re-statement of Michael Crichton at his most didactic; it is also an accurate summation of the theological, moral, philosophical, and bioethical issues the nineteen year-old Mary Shelley wrestled with in her amazing novel.

It is with some sense of discomfort that I found when reading the author’s preface to The Cross of Frankenstein that it was this very conclusion that Myers found so unsatisfying that he felt a sequel was not only possible, but necessary. Myers writes that “it seemed out of character for such a monster, however, to have simply finished himself off. There were still worlds to conquer, and his most determined antagonist was dead.” I was intrigued by this simply because Shelley’s ending seemed so complete. What story did Myers believe still had to be told for the Monster? Knowing the author to be a man of intelligence and learning, my interest was piqued to learn where he would take the story. Sadly, the results make Universal’s 1939 potboiler, Son of Frankenstein seem positively inspired in comparison.

The Cross of Frankenstein is narrated by young Dr. Victor Saville, the illegitimate son conceived by Victor Frankenstein with an anonymous wench during his final pursuit of the monster near the climax of Shelley’s novel. Right there, I was stopped in my tracks. Had Myers contrived to have Frankenstein father the child earlier in the narrative, it might have been plausible. Shelley goes to great pains to show how both creator and creation sublimate their desires in their all-consuming quest to destroy one another in the story’s third and final act. Additionally, Frankenstein had recently seen his wife and best friend murdered by the monster and yet Myers asks the reader to believe Frankenstein set aside his single-minded obsession that led to his death from physical and mental exhaustion for a quickie with a barmaid. Of course, Myers also later tells us the Monster was out sodomizing animals in the woods so perhaps they both agreed to a break from trying to kill one another for a couple hours to help relieve the tension.

Victor Saville grows up ignorant of his heritage. He shares many traits and interests with his infamous father and so the reader is not startled to learn he is, in fact, the latest of the numerous Frankenstein heirs fated to walk in their ancestor’s unhallowed footsteps. The Saville household is made up of Victor’s doting Aunt Margaret, their creepy butler William, and his aunt’s beautiful and innocent ward, Felicia. All appears set for a traditional Frankenstein tale, albeit one that seems to owe more to Frankenstein movies than Shelley’s book. The sinister Mr. Greene shows up unexpectedly just after Young Saville has learned of his parentage. Greene sets the tale in motion by tasking Dr. Saville with finding a fluid that can function as an alternative to blood to complete a mysterious experiment. This is where the story begins to fall apart as Saville is immediately convinced that this strange request must mean that his father’s creation still lives and is behind the mysterious scientific cabal Greene is said to represent. I was left scratching my head at the logic of this conclusion and sadly, not for the last time.

In short order, Victor has sex with Felicia on the front lawn in broad daylight, gets reprimanded by his prim and proper Aunt (so much is made of her hypocritical Bible-thumping opinions that one wonders what sort of lawn games the neighbors observed at the Myers household), snickers through Sunday services with his new girlfriend (even though they should be heartbroken that their actions have led to her being kicked out of the house), and then promptly gets himself shanghaied to America by Greene while seeing Felicia off at the wharf. Victor, gagged and bound in the cargo hold of a ship with Greene’s fierce German Shepherd, Prince, guarding him; fears his sphincter will not hold and he will “beshat” himself. If the reader’s mind isn’t left reeling with that jewel of a phrase, Victor then is convinced for no apparent reason that Greene must have abducted Felicia as well. As before, Victor’s peculiar conclusions are later proven correct. As the narrator, Victor never questions his own logic, so why should the reader carp?

Once in America, who do you suppose turns up as a member of the scientific cabal? Yes, it’s Aunt Margaret’s creepy butler, William. Now at last the plot begins to make sense. William obviously learned of Victor’s parentage and contacted Greene and the others that Frankenstein’s son would be useful to their mysterious experiments. A bit far-fetched maybe, but at least it’s basically sound, right? No such luck. It is a matter of sheer coincidence that William ends up among their rank and the reader never learns how Greene discovered Victor’s identity as a Frankenstein.

We soon quickly learn that there is no scientific cabal and Greene the flunky is actually the ringleader of this group who were only posing as scientists to dupe Saville. Having lost the dotty old religious fanatic, Aunt Margaret, we quickly meet the dotty old religious fanatic Reverend Ritter (who’s also a comic drunk, for good measure). Ritter is the spiritual leader of what now turns out to be an odd mish-mash of socialist revolutionaries and a religious cult. Greene and William (one of only four members of this supposed army to be given names and dialogue) plot to use the Monster to overthrow America’s fledgling government in the early nineteenth century while Ritter and his followers believe the Monster’s promise of a Resurrection Day in which their Savior (once Victor makes more of the blood-substitute fluid) will be able to restore their departed loved ones to life. Myers has an inspired bit here where the corpses of the congregation’s deceased family members are used as raw materials for further Frankenstein experiments in reanimating bodies that have been stitched together patchwork-style. This has the potential for genuine ghoulish chills when one imagines what the Resurrection Day will look like to the congregation. Sadly, Myers squanders this opportunity as well by only having Victor discover the truth. After building up Ritter as a major supporting player, Myers has him turn up crucified by either Greene (his political rival) or the Monster – the author never explains which one is guilty of Ritter’s murder.

There’s also a nice juicy role for Jenny, Greene’s attractive young wife (never mind the fact that they’ve been married for years and yet she is still described as young while her husband is now middle-aged). Jenny is the congregation’s nurse. She grew up in poverty and graduated from barmaid to wife to nurse and yet is Victor’s equal in understanding the scientific genius of his father’s notebooks. Of course, Jenny knows a good thing when she sees it and wanting a better biological father for her child, she jumps Victor’s bones as fast as you can say “Nineteenth century morals, my ass!” Victor is quite the lucky guy in that a preacher’s daughter like Felicia and the wife of a jealous and abusive man like Greene require no seduction whatsoever from our hero. These women are willing and eager and Myers, it must be said, exercises surprising restraint in detailing their couplings. Of course, that’s because he’s saving it up for the Big Bang later on in the narrative.

Victor considers his infidelity to Felicia and in the span of a single paragraph rationalizes that the love of his life would understand the casual sex with Jenny that he believes has produced his own illegitimate heir meant nothing and so concludes there is no reason to even tell her. What happens to Frankenstein stays in Frankenstein, apparently (or words to that effect). However, Jenny’s scheming of parental selection is all for naught since she ends up murdered the next morning — how convenient for Victor, casual sex with no strings attached. Of course, a short time later Victor witnesses the congregation follow Reverend Ritter’s drunken homily with an all-out Rite of Spring orgy with Benediction of the most base nature imaginable granted by the monster’s monstrous member which Myers describes in such awe and with such loving detail that it reads more risible than Richard Jaccoma at his worst. Who is the Monster’s mate for the orgy? You guessed it – Felicia herself.

Naturally, the reader expects a sexually-liberated-before-his-time character like Victor not to harbor any petty jealousy, right? It’s not like he hasn’t enjoyed his own on the side, too. Nope, deep down Victor is as much a traditional nineteenth century guy as the next. For the entire remainder of the book, he is tortured by Felicia’s callous betrayal and the image of her ecstasy while mounting the Monster stays in his mind and the reader’s (although evoking a considerably different reaction than the author evidently intended). Shortly before this book was published, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder wrung puerile anatomical humor about the Monster out of Young Frankenstein, but Myers takes it to a level that approaches Kurt Vonnegut without the knowing satire to salvage it’s dignity. Witness the climactic description of a thunderstorm: “the autumn rain released every fluid ounce, like a primitive orgasm.”

There’s also plenty more lapses in logic along the way, too as Victor poisons Prince’s dinner and then has the German Shepherd turn up later in the story inexplicably alive (no suggestion of any Frankenstein resurrection for the pooch, either). Felicia gets what’s coming to her though and ends up with Greene bashing her skull in with a rock on the final pages of the book. See, boys and girls, the lesson is guys are allowed to cheat, but bad girls always get killed – Ian Fleming was right. The 1970s seemed to bring the porn out in pulp fiction in a misguided and juvenile attempt to achieve literary sophistication with the genre. Once the reader gets past the shock value, you’re left with the fact that authors like R. J. Myers end up looking pathetic as if the world just caught them playing with themselves. The Monster is almost an oversight in the story since what Myers does to poor Mary Shelley’s classic is the real horror story.