Jean and I have been touring schools lately, looking for the right place for our older daughter. In between the smart-boards and the iPads and the progressive learning methods, it’s been one punch of nostalgia after another: the smell of modeling clay mixed with sack lunches; the same posters that were up on the walls of my own elementary school, the same cursive writing charts, and, in one library, the same books.
Specifically, the Crestwood House Monster Series of books.
I’d almost written these off to faulty memory until I saw this one in a Halloween display: The Wolf Man.
And then it all came flooding back. The Monster Series was a line of books that gathered up a bunch of (surprisingly accurate) monster lore and then included (surprisingly detailed) plot summaries of the great monster movies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The Collister Elementary library had the entire set, and since I wasn’t allowed to read comic books in class, I checked out every one of them. To this day, there are some horror films I haven’t seen — for instance, I’ve never seen Universal’s original Mummy series — but I know how they ended, because I read the Crestwood House books. This was the Internet before the Internet: a corner of the library filled with specialized knowledge, just waiting there for someone willing to seek it out. My path to writing The President’s Vampire started right there.
(You can read an excellent history of the books here.)
As soon as I knew the proper name for the series, I went to Amazon and got some copies of my own, in order to keep wallowing in the resurfaced memories. One old favorite holds up very well: Mad Scientists.
It includes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fu Manchu, The Invisible Man, and The Fly. It’s a treasure trove of very smart guys with really bad ideas. And it’s got some lovely still pictures from all of those horror flicks.
I’m still sort of amazed that no horrified parents’ groups ever rallied against these books, since they include murder, mayhem, occult practices, and all kinds of other crimes that kids are supposed to be sheltered from.
But then, as now, kids are tougher and smarter than we think — I don’t remember a single nightmare from one of these books, or, for that matter, from Channel 12′s month-long Halloween movie marathon. Instead, I think I began to realize that these were all stories — that there were common threads of legend and pure nonsense running through them, and if I worked at it, I might be able to unravel them and find the secrets for myself.
I’m thrilled to see that these books are still out there in the wild. The copies I picked up were discards from the Fergus Falls library, probably salvaged for less than a buck each, which seems like a shame.
Hopefully someone will buy up the rights to the Crestwood House series and bring them all back into print. I think there are a lot of kids who would appreciate this kind of field guide to the world of monsters; who might really be able to use books that explain away some of the mystery, and shed a little light in the dark.