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.
• Cracked.com has five examples of stories from history that are just as frightening as any horror movie. Doesn’t include my favorite, but the one about a real-life Chucky doll makes up for it. There’s also this piece from Cracked about the creepiest stories in the history of war.(Spoilers: it includes eating human flesh.)
• Paranormal author Brad Steiger gives his picks for the most authentic ghost films at UFO Digest. Or you can check out his picks for scariest UFO movies, in case you’re looking for something to watch on Halloween.
• And speaking of real-life horror stories, try to wrap your mind around this concept: “Planetary Chemotherapy.”
Just in case the decomposing flesh and the eating people doesn’t clue you in, here’s how you diagnose what’s wrong with a zombie.
I would have sworn that Kim Newman invented the song from his book of the same title, Anno Dracula: Dracula Cha Cha Cha. (If you haven’t already, go out and pick up the entire Anno Dracula series, now available from Titan Books. It’s freaking amazing.)
But as it turns out, it’s a real song by Bruno Martino that was a minor hit back in the 60s.
The moral of the story: real life is always weirder. Always.
The Top Five Versions of Frankenstein, After Shelley
There is clearly some strong tendency to make the monster created by Mary Shelley in her classic novel into a hero despite the fact that it killed women and children in a twisted desire for revenge. Maybe this is because its creator, Victor, was such a complete prick. But whatever the reason, of all the classic monsters, Frankenstein is usually the one who will turn against Dracula and/or the Mad Scientist and protect the villagers who have proven all too willing to threaten him with fire and/or pitchforks. (Honestly, you’d think that Dracula — ordinarily a pretty smart vampire — would get the message and stop including Frank in these big monster team-ups.)
But of all the good Frankensteins out there, here are my votes for the very best.
5. Peter Boyle as “The Monster” in Young Frankenstein
4. Frankenstein’s Monster, Marvel Comics
A ten-year-old boy genius and his dad build a giant superhero robot and fight super-villains. There is no part of that sentence that should not be a $200 million movie by next summer.
2. Doc Frankenstein, Burlyman Comics
Imagine Doc Savage if he were built from the parts of corpses by a mad scientist, and then went on to kill other monsters and save the planet on a regular basis. Been waiting for the next issue of this for about five years now.
1. Frankenstein, DC Comics
As cool as a Doc Savage Frankenstein is, Grant Morrison kicked the crap out of the Wachowskis’ version — a small bit of payback for ripping off the Invisibles, perhaps? — with his updated Frankenstein for DC Comics. Introduced in Seven Soldiers, this Frankenstein carries Excalibur in one arm that’s been ripped from the body of the Archangel Michael. (The other, it’s implied, has been harvested from Arnold Schwarzenegger.) He’s been fighting evil since the 1800s, vacations on Mars, stopped a cosmic invasion of Earth, and, in the new DC continuity, even killed Hitler.
So yeah. Maybe not what Mary Shelley had in mind. But a great deal more entertaining than thousands of words on man’s moral obligation to his creations.