Filler content with Hammer horror

Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:-

HAMMER HORROR: WE KEEP THE LIGHTS ON

Back when I interviewed him in Black Static #34 regarding, among other things, his novelisation of Vampire Circus, writer Mark Morris said of these literary adaptations of classic films from the studio’s heyday that ‘Hammer have decided not to publish any more of them once the already-commissioned batch have been released’, and so there is about the first two reviews in this section of Case Notes a fin de siècle feel.

Shaun Hutson’s THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Hammer Books paperback, 335pp, £6.99) adheres closely to the plot of the 1958 film that serves as its template, the author speaking with genuine affection of his respect for the source material in his introduction to the book.

To recap briefly, for the benefit of those who are not familiar with film, sentenced to death for his crimes, Baron Frankenstein manages to escape with the aid of hunchback prison guard Carl, who he promises to help. Posing as Doctor Stein, he sets up the Hospital for the Poor in Carlsbruck, continuing his research on the bodies of patients who die in his care, sometimes with a little help. He is assisted by the young and idealistic Doctor Kleve, but matters come to a head when Carl’s brain is transplanted into a new and perfectly formed body. The former hunchback realises that he is every bit as much a prisoner of his condition as before, fated to be an exhibit in Frankenstein’s travelling freak show, and then his body begins to reject the brain, with terrible consequences.

There is slightly more to it than that précis might suggest, but nothing of any great significance. Hutson’s writing is competent rather than inspirational prose (something that could be said equally for two other authors under consideration here), but it gets the job done with assuredness and a sympathetic feel for the material, the author eschewing the literary equivalent of splatter effects with which many associate him in favour of a more restrained approach. While structurally Revenge is a faithful adaptation of its cinematic progenitor, there are sufficient grace notes, deft characterisation and plot twists to retain reader interest. Where it truly comes into its own is in dealing with Frankenstein’s defining characteristic of hubris, as nailed by Mary Shelley in the novel that gave birth to this subgenre of the horror field. In his willingness to sacrifice others on the altar of medical research, with his belief that the ends will justify the means, Frankenstein foreshadows the death camp doctors of the Third Reich. He works towards an idealistic end, but is too blinkered to see that in doing so he throws overboard eternal values, concepts of right and wrong, feelings of compassion. Ultimately everything is about himself, his achievements and future reputation, and so in his person we see the scientist transformed into a self-obsessed megalomaniac, and perhaps more than anything else it is this impression of corrupted purity of intent that we take from Hutson’s novel.

The next two books under consideration are shown as ‘published by Arrow Books in association with Hammer’, though only the first of them draws on a cinematic prototype, 1971’s Countess Dracula.

Author Guy Adams transfers the events of COUNTESS DRACULA (Arrow Books paperback, 248pp, £6.99) from 17th century Hungary to Hollywood in the 1930s, a time when silent movies were losing ground to the talkies (Singin’ in the Rain might also have provided some of the inspiration). Setting aside though, this is pretty much the Hammer story retold verbatim, with tinsel town royalty in lieu of East European aristocracy.

Stars of the silent screen, Frank Nayland and Elizabeth Sasdy are accustomed to having their own way in everything, but the advent of talking films has undercut Elizabeth’s success, as she has a thick Hungarian accent, while the onset of age is threatening her good looks. A fight with the hired help leads to the discovery that blood revitalises her complexion, but increasingly frequent applications are required to keep gilding the lily. Reluctant at first, Frank finds himself drawn into her web, helping procure the young virgins who will erase time’s mark on the skin of the woman he loves. She however is only using him, while chasing after a young actor to share her bed, with everything coming undone in a Hollywood party to end them all.

While Adams should probably be applauded for attempting something different, with hindsight the shifted chronology felt like camouflage, an attempt to convince the reader he or she is seeing something new while dishing up the same old same old. It starts well enough, with the framing device of a coach party touring celebrity sites and finding Sasdy’s abandoned mansion, leading into an account of what transpired there, but after that is entirely predictable to anyone who has seen the film, even down to the surprise reveal at the end. There was an opportunity here to pass comment on the vapidity of celebrity lifestyles, our culture’s obsession with youth and good looks, running so deep that a successful woman like Sasdy is driven to desperate measures to preserve her career and social standing, but that opportunity was missed and pretty much all we have by way of motivation for Sasdy’s actions is that she’s a selfish harridan. Instead of tackling superficiality it is superficial itself, ultimately offering little more than a story about spoilt and selfish people acting badly, competently written and with and some sparkling dialogue by way of a consolation prize. It’s pleasant enough, taken on its own terms, an agreeable way to pass the time, but the writer could have done so much more.

Moving on to the original material, HUNGER (Arrow Books hardback, 295pp, £9.99) by Melvin Burgess is the kind of story that, back in the halcyon days of gore, Hammer would have done proud, but nowadays it’s more like the literary equivalent of a low budget indie going straight to DVD before achieving cult status among the cognoscenti.

It opens with a bog standard horror hook. Student Beth wakes up to an aching body and sheets coated with dirt, and she has no idea of what she’s been up to, other than that her childhood problem with sleep walking appears to have recurred. Moving on, it seems that she’s always hungry, no matter how enthusiastically she stuffs her face. There’s a strange brick under her bed with a Latin inscription on it, and before long people she has been associated with start to disappear. Unwittingly Beth has released the demon Alghol, and before long she and her student friends are on the run from a supernatural force intent on their death or conversion. Fortunately they have help from the spirit of Beth’s dead mother, who teaches Beth how to use her own paranormal talents.

Lively and fast paced, this is an entertaining excursion into the shallow end of the horror pool, with plenty of familiar tropes pulled out of the writer’s imagination and put to good use on the page. The four main characters – the tormented Beth, sexy geek Coll, lecherous Ivan who has a heart of gold, brother Louis with his religious beliefs – are well drawn and interact convincingly, and Burgess shows them no mercy in a story that doesn’t take prisoners. The monsters are suitably ghoulish, with a nightmarish cast of vampires and dog creatures who have the main villain’s back, and wet work that feels appropriately repellent but inventive enough to make the sfx people earn their money. The storyline holds the interest, with plenty of twists and turns of fortune, taking in Doctor Dee and the various levels of existence, attempting to give Alghol a credible motive for his unending malice instead of just writing it all off to something as banal as his being evil. If I have any reservations, it’s that it all feels a tad superficial, with writing that doesn’t quite get under the skin so that the emotion created in the reader is one of horror tinged with disgust rather than dread or primal fear, and with no real sense that it could turn out any way other than with the forces of right triumphant, albeit at a heavy cost. But that’s all okay I guess, and it entertained me well enough for the few hours I spent reading it.

And with our fourth offering, Royce Prouty’s STOKER’S MANUSCRIPT (Arrow Books paperback, 338pp, £7.99), the Hammer name is no longer in evidence. We shall pause for a moment’s silence.

Forbidden books, tomes with terrible secrets buried deep in their text, are a staple of horror fiction, but the audacious Prouty selects as his literary McGuffin one of the genre’s canonical works, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. In the back story to Prouty’s novel, Stoker was assisted in the writing of his magnum opus by a native of the region in which it was set, and this gentleman incorporated various secrets into the text. Second thoughts having prevailed, he then took various steps to prevent the publication of Dracula in its full form, so that we are only familiar with an abridged/edited version of the text. But now the original manuscript is to be put up for auction by a museum in Philadelphia. Joseph Barkeley, who has carved out a career for himself as an authenticator of rare books, is hired by a mystery client and, if he thinks the work is genuine, is to purchase the manuscript and transport it back to Romania. For Joseph there is a personal element to this journey, in that he and his priest brother were orphans brought to the States from Romania by a charitable benefactor, and he intends to seek out his mother’s grave. But, as aficionados of horror fiction will already have guessed, Joseph’s employer is a vampire lord and the secrets contained in Stoker’s manuscript could place mankind in peril.

The idea is an ingenious one and Prouty develops it well, creating a convincing back story for his esoteric manuscript, with a particular joy for the reader in how Barkeley pieces together the various clues, discovering both the identity of Stoker’s helper and unravelling the mystery contained in the text excised from Dracula. The vampire lords Dalca and Radu, creatures driven mad by hubris and longevity, are chilling creations and the antipathy between them is well realised, as is the delineation of the vampire hierarchy, a rigid structure with so called ‘nobles’ at the very top of the food chain, Prouty’s ingenuity serving him equally well in incorporating these monsters into the historical context of the story. Barkeley’s personality, the mystery of his birth and family antecedents, and the unusual friends he surrounds himself with add yet another frisson to the text. These subsidiary characters are well drawn, such as vampire expert Mara, Barkeley’s earnest priest brother Theo and psychically gifted Sonia, each captured with a few carefully chosen words, given life and breath on the page, a pivotal role in the narrative even if we do not realise so until the moment is past. Similarly, Prouty is adept at capturing the flavour of Romania, both past and present, making it come alive for the reader with a wealth of incidental detail, just as Stoker did before him, so that we contemplate a country of great beauty and natural assets, a place where the landscape can steal your breath away one minute only to turn minatory in the next, a proud nation and its people needlessly undermined by the greed and whims of politicians, perhaps causing us to wonder if the vampires could be any worse as rulers, only to then answer, that yes, of course they would, much worse.

This is the most ambitious of these four books and easily the most literary, with writing at a higher level. Where I have doubts, it is to do with the idea of the vampires not simply seizing the manuscript, but instead waiting patiently until it comes up for auction, and the rather negligent control they exercise over Barkeley. It’s this factor that empowers him to scheme against them, but it doesn’t quite ring true for me. A minor complaint though, and something that doesn’t detract from Prouty’s achievement here in crafting an entertaining variation on the vampire theme, a tasty morsel that, while it won’t set this subgenre alight, should satisfy the craving for things fanged but not sparkly for the few hours that it will take to read, and which should resonant pleasurably for a while after the treat has been thoroughly digested.

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