Wednesday, January 16, 2008

WHAT'S READIN'? - The Great Horror Film Books

Sometimes I think I like to read about movies even better than watching them. If you looked at a list of all the books I have ever read, you would find more books about film and film history than any other type. Since horror and science fiction are my favorite genres, you would also find that I have read more books on that subject than anything else. There’s nothing I like more than curling up with a new book about fright flicks and exploring a fellow fan’s thoughts on my favorite subject. The good books offer something new that I had never thought of before. The great ones are the volumes that I return to again and again to re-read for both research or pure enjoyment.
This is an essay about the great ones—at least, the great ones in my opinion. I am sure many of you will disagree with some of my choices and wonder why I did not include a specific title that seems a certainty for such a list as this. I know when I am finished I will think of a title I should have included but simply omitted as an oversight. This list is not written in stone; it is simply one reader’s compilation of the books on horror films that he considers to be the best.
The earliest films I can recall seeing on television were horror films. I don’t know what attracted me to the genre all I know was I could not get enough of the creature features that played every Saturday afternoon. It’s no surprise that some of the earliest books I checked out of the school library were Ian Thorne’s series of works specifically created for kids. These books focused on specific monsters and/or film series such as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, KING KONG and GODZILLA and they were heavily illustrated with stills from the films.
These were not the only books out there designed for kids—in fact, there were quite a few—but there are some that I remember standing out as superior to the rest...
GREAT MONSTERS OF THE MOVIES by Edward Edelson was one of the first explorations of the entire genre that I read. Designed to be kid-friendly with plenty of stills and easy reading, it gives a somewhat generalized view of the early horror films. The book includes a lengthy chapter on the legends that inspired many of filmdom's greatest monsters as well as chapters devoted to silent horror films and the classic trio of Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney Jr. Though the book is dated now and might not fascinate today’s desensitized youth like it did when I was a kid, it remains a fond memory for me (I still have a paperback copy on my bookshelf).
Even better was Thomas G. Aylesworth’s MONSTERS FROM THE MOVIES. This book was longer that Edelson’s and a bit more in depth. If memory serves, it took a bit more of an adult approach to its exploration of the genre yet remained accessible to younger readers. It also contained great stills. I was in the second grade when I checked it out from the school library. Library period was once a week and students were allowed to check out three books at a time. One week, I chose MONSTERS as one of my three. My teacher looked at the length of the book and advised me to take only that book since it would probably take me the whole week to read it. I finished the entire book that very afternoon after school. That teacher had no idea how much I relished reading about horror films. I read it a few more times in the ensuing elementary school years but I never returned to it as an adult. I guess I’m afraid it won’t hold up and I don’t want to ruin my fond memory of that afternoon reading my only library book of the week.Another favorite book from the school library was A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HORROR MOVIES by Denis Gifford. As the title implies, the book contained pages and pages of the best stills and scenes from almost every horror film made up to the time of the book’s initial publication. Even now, I can not believe that our elementary school library carried the book because some of the stills were so gruesome. (The goriest was a full page shot from a Filipino film The Blood Drinkers showing a vampire drinking from a woman’s torn-open throat.) Every week, the boys in my class pulled the book off the shelf and turned the pages together looking at every still and proudly proclaiming which films we had seen. The book was a bit too-adult for first or second grade tastes but when I hit the fifth grade I finally checked it out. Today I own a copy of the book and I value it very much. Gifford’s insights are good, his writing style is very readable and his sense of horror film history is thorough. His book was also the first time I encountered such subjects as Tod Slaughter and the Grand Guignol Theater of Paris. One of my favorite features of the book is an opening spread with 12 of the greatest quotes from classic horror films. The quotes are still relevant today—I recently loaned the book to a screenwriting instructor who was covering horror film dialogue in a seminar.During the summer, when school was out, the local library became my supplier of reading material. Early on, I switched from the children’s section to the adult section and there I found one of my favorite books ever. LIVING IN FEAR: A HISTORY OF HORROR IN THE MASS MEDIA by Les Daniels still impresses me by its incredible scope. Though it never digs very deep into any one subject, the work still covers EVERYTHING from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus to EC comics to Alice Cooper to The Exorcist. As a kid, I skipped over the early chapters that discussed the origins of modern horror and the gothic novels and went right to the start of silent horror films. Later, I voraciously read every word. This would be the first time reading about horror on the radio, the pulp magazines, horror hosts such as Zacherley and Vampira (who passed away the other day) as well as introducing me to many, many horror authors whose works I would happily explore in the years to come. In fact, many of the chapters ended with a classic horror tale including one that has never left me: “Blood Son” by Richard Matheson. Daniels’ book is important for it is—I believe—the first book on horror that explored not only how our culture was impacted by the genre but also how the genre was affected by our culture. I suspect that it inspired David J. Skal when he wrote THE MONSTER SHOW but I may be wrong.
Another book that covered not only horror films but also horror on the radio, on television and in print was Steven King’s amazing DANSE MACABRE. My parents were reading King when I was young and the paperback covers of his early books intrigued by eager young mind. Warned by my mother that I was too young to read his books (she was right-—“The Boogeyman” caused many, many nightmares and a lifelong fear of open closet doors), I couldn’t wait until I got the green light to devour his incredible novels. Eventually, I got around to DANS MACABRE. Amazingly, it was just as engrossing as King’s best novels. King clearly loves horror and, like many of us fans, has just as much affection for schlock as he does the bona fide classics. He also includes a lot of biographical data that is just as interesting as his commentary on films and novels. The first time I read the book, I skipped the lengthy section on horror literature because my youthfully short attention span did not want to waste time with the subject. Later readings corrected that indiscretion and thank goodness! Without this book, I would not have had the pleasure of reading such works as The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons or Ghost Story by Peter Straub. But this is a piece on books about horror films not horror novels and King’s views on film are just as intriguing and well-thought out. As he has stated many times, King loves movies and this comes through very clearly. He makes you want to go out and see them again—even such dogs as Prophecy. His choices are limited by the years of his life to that point so you won’t read too much about the Universal horror movies or the films produced by Val Lewton but the boundary decisions make sense. Particularly interesting are King’s explanations of the horror icons (the vampire, the werewolf, the thing with no name) and the brief quiz where he briefly describes some scary movies (not all of them horror) as if they were fairy tales and has the reader guess the titles. This book should be used as a text for any class on modern horror. I wish King would write a sequel exploring the genre in mass media since then. I’m sure it would be equally as fascinating.
While reading many of these works, the name Carlos Clarens and his book AN  ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF HORROR AND SCIENCE FICTION FILMS came up quite frequently. This is one of the first books—if not the first—to explore the horror genre. It’s also one of the first to do so from an academic standpoint. It’s a seminal work but one that, I must admit, I infrequently go back to probably because it feels somewhat dated to me. However, it’s scope is wide without being too general. And it approaches the genre lovingly, towering over its contemporary HORRORS! by Drake Douglas who seems too often to disdain the very films he is writing about. Clarens’ book can’t help but be a bit general but that can be forgiven due to its place in history. 

One author who never works in generalities is Don Glut. A true horror historian and a detail-oriented completist, his works delve deep into horror movies like no other. He has done volumes on Dracula, Frankenstein and the “Classic Movie Monsters” and they are all informative and pleasant to read. But I am still in awe of THE FRANKENSTEIN CATALOG which seeks to list every Frankenstein appearance in books, magazines, television shows, movies, etc. It’s a true reference book and one not usually read cover to cover though I did because I wanted to read about everything he listed. I had the pleasure of interviewing Glut at a DVD signing for I Was a Teenage Movie Maker and after asking about the origins of the book I told him I read it all the way through. He was taken aback by that. In fact, I think he even asked me why. It was just that fascinating.

Another early, seminal work is CLASSICS OF THE HORROR FILM by William K. Everson. Starting with interesting commentary on horror as a genre and a discussion of some of the important silent fright films (including such interesting choices as Mary Pickford’s Sparrows and Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films), he chooses at least 25 classic horror films for individual discussion. At times, he is a bit stingy about his choices (such as grouping Dracula in a chapter on vampires rather than tackling it solo), but he still includes some pictures not usually discussed. For example, this book was the first time I came across the titles Murders in the Zoo and Murder By the Clock, two fine early horror flicks. Some of the individual discussions are way too brief and leave the reader wanting more but one has to forgive the author—there was not easy access to these films at the time with video and DVD a long way off. He just might not have remembered a lot about them. But Everson did try to keep his study current (which at that time was The Exorcist) though modern horror fans may find the material somewhat dated. Everson did write a sequel MORE CLASSICS OF THE HORROR FILM which is actually more than just a look at more modern films. Everson went back and re-examined films he had originally excluded as well as some rediscovered pictures thought to be lost. He also included a compelling chapter on chilling horror moments in non-horror films which can lead the discerning reader to make some wonderful discoveries. Thanks to Everson and that very chapter, I found Green For Danger which has subsequently become a favorite.
For a long time, the only books about horror film were simply picture books with little text or substance. Important films were gleaned over with only a few words or perhaps a still. Then publishers such as McFarland and Midnight Marquee Press started producing more and more studies that were more specific in focus and scope. These books were also more intelligent in their writing and more academic in their approach. They gave authors whose wor
ks would normally be ignored by major publishers a venue to reach the true fans and students of the genre. These were books that could be read for pleasure as well as used for research; books that were more often taken out from a college library rather than perused in a Barnes and Noble; books that just might be a college thesis expanded in length. These were books that tread new ground by being able to explore individual facets of the horror genre and, in some cases, write the final word on the topic.
One of the best of this new breed was
UNIVERSAL HORRORS by Michael and John Brunas and Tom Weaver. Though aptly illustrated, the book’s power lies in its total study of every Universal horror film from 1931 to 1946. It devotes chapter-length studies to each, individual film making it seem as though each one was important and worthy. At the same time, the authors are not afraid to speak honestly from the heart and criticize elements that were praised in the past. For example, they skewer the direction of Dracula, openly mock the acting talents of Aquanetta and Maria Montez and insult Rondo Hatton by saying the simplest line reading is beyond him. The authors can be almost harsh in their criticisms but this is not a problem because they are almost always dead-on with their assessments. They are simply stating sentiments that horror fans had held in check for fear of their fellow fans turning on them. And they never let you forget that for all their jibes, deep down they love these films as much as you do. Reading this book never becomes tiresome. The authors have a personable writing style ably intermixing humor with scholarly study. There are great interview quotes (most likely from Weaver, a master interviewer whose discussions with genre greats are always informative and completist) as well as trivia for buffs, biographical sketches, behind the scenes stories and just enough plot summary not to be tiresome. They include borderline horror films such as Great Impersonation, comedies like Hold That Ghost as well as all the Inner Sanctum films and the studio’s many Sherlock Holmes films. (At first, I felt these did not belong but now I am thankful for the information the authors have provided). But I’m so greedy, I wish they had also included the silent films as well. I also wish the study had been extended to 1948 just so I could read their thoughts on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Heck, I wish they would do a sequel covering every Universal horror film up to the present day (imagine how fun it would be to read their reviews of The Car and Jaws). But their boundaries were correctly chosen and the book remains the final word on the Universal dynasty of fright.
Tom Weaver has produced many volumes of his fascinating interviews and they are all fun reads but I enjoy most his study of the POVERTY ROW HORRORS, those low budget shockers produced by Monogram, Republic and PRC. Naturally, the book has elements of style similar to UNIVERSAL HORRORS making it both a smart read as well as an entertaining one. Weaver gives us more great interview material as well as intriguing trivia and biographies. He examines each film individually, giving intense scrutiny and scholarly study to films that had never been taken seriously before including horror comedies from the Bowery Boys and such titles as Fog Island, The Flying Serpent and the Cat-man of Paris. But Weaver also keeps his tongue firmly in cheek knowing full well that many of these films are below par. As a result, his criticism can be harsh to the point of hostile but it is too his credit that his love for these cheapie creepies is never questioned or doubted. It’s another must for any collection and the final word on poverty row horror flicks.
While these two books are specific by studio, DARK ROMANCE: SEXUALITY IN THE HORROR FILM from author David J. Hogan is specific by theme. That theme is sex and the horror film, obviously. Though there are some I know who don’t care for this book, I was impressed by Hogan’s critical approaches, his academic examinations and his final conclusions. His initial chapters group together films by mini-themes such as family issues and sexual duality then later entries focus on specific filmmakers such as Hitchcock and Corman before the final chapters which wrap up by looking at then-modern directors. Hogan is often brave in what he includes as horror films (such as Taxi Driver) and was among the first (I believe) to apply serious study to the works of such ignored directors as Ed Wood, Paul Bartel and H.G. Lewis (whether or not they deserve it as in the case of the latter). Hogan writes in an easily readable style and with good humor. It would be interesting to see him do an updated version of the study—I’d be specifically interested in his viewpoints with the current trend of torture-porn in horror films.
Bill Warren’s two-volume KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES (released as one volume in paperback) is an amazing accomplishment. Though this is a work devoted to science fiction films, the genre has always been linked to horror and many of the films in the book can be considered horror as well as sci-fi. Warren writes about each and every movie with science fiction elements from 1950 until 1962 giving the most space to the more important and acclaimed titles. But even his briefer entries give plenty of information. Again, every film is treated individually and fairly despite its budget or background. Warren provides plot summaries, background information and able criticisms as well as including personal memories about seeing the films. These biographical bits totally enhance his style--which is almost conversational—allowing Warren to always come across as one of the guys. The book becomes more and more amazing with each perusal and it is staggering to think of the time and effort it must have taken to produce it. It’s a true labor of love, a valentine to sci-fi fans and an admitted inspiration to other authors in the field.
Every book written by Gregory William Mank is worth reading but my favorite is KARLOFF AND LUGOSI: THE STORY OF A HAUNTING COLLABORATION. Mank writes the final word on the rivalry between the two greatest horror stars ever while always giving each fair, unbiased treatment. More importantly, he writes his book as if he’s telling a story and he’s able to make that story just as compelling as any novel. He writes all his books in that style and makes it look easy while doing it. He weaves in interviews, dates and figures, criticism, film summaries and incredibly researched facts without breaking the movement of the “plot.” It’s
 no wonder I heard that someone had bought the movie rights to the book (this has not been confirmed and may not be true). KARLOFF AND LUGOSI can be read over and over again and never gets old. Mank’s books never disappoint. I envy this man’s abilities and body of work.
Denis Meikle’s A HISTORY OF HORRORS: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE HOUSE OF HAMMER reads as though Mank had tackled the topic of the Hammer horror flicks and this is meant as a great compliment. Meikle’s style is different for sure but similar in the fact that he tells the history of the famed studio as a story. The book reads almost like a novel while also being well researched and critical. It focuses only on the horror and science fiction films made by Hammer but also includes ample material on the studio’s history as well. In my opinion, it’s the best book ever written on the subject.
FEARING THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON CAREER by Edmund G. Bansak is an in-depth look at the life and films of Val Lewton. Filled with facts and well written, the book makes sure to cover every facet of Lewton the filmmaker with an abundance of material. Many pages are devoted to people such as Nazimova and Orson Welles and their connection to or influence on Lewton. Each of the producer’s films are explored in detail and Lewton’s techniques are examined quite closely. This book is everything you ever wanted to know about Val Lewton and was the basis for the excellent documentary that accompanied the box set DVD release of the films.
Bryan Senn’s GOLDEN HORRORS: AN ILLUSTRATED CRITICAL FILMOGRAPHY, 1931-1939 is specific in its point of study but more general by including every horror movie in that time period. It’s an incredible work, detailed in its research, perceptive in its criticism and written with real love for the genre. Each film is discussed or described under the headings “SYNOPSIS,” MEMORABLE MOMENT,” “ASSETS,” “LIABILITIES,” “REVIEWS” and “PRODUCTION NOTES” and this may become tiresome for those reading cover to cover. But I like the way Senn picks the most memorable moment from each movie (he’s almost always right) and I admire his freely expressed strong feelings (he lists The Old Dark House’s liabilities as “None.”) The appendix listing and detailing the borderline horror films of the thirties is just as fun and interesting as the main text because seldom discussed films such as She, Thirteen Women, the Ritz Brother’s The Gorilla and The Phantom of Crestwood get a moment in the sun.
HOLLYWOOD CAULDRON is typical of the work of Gregory Mank—and by this I mean, it’s a great read. As with Mank’s work (and as I mentioned before), the book reads like a story—though in this case, it’s several little stories as Mank explores 13 classic horror and suspense films with his typical skill and intelligence. At first, it seems Mank’s choices for study are random—films are chosen from almost every studio as well as one from poverty row and they seldom have anything in common with one another. Closer examination reveals, however, that with a few exceptions Mank is choosing to explore classic horror flicks seldom discussed previously with any detail. For example, this book was my introduction to the tragic story of Laird Cregar as well as his two psychothrillers The Lodger and Hangover Square. All in all, it’s another must-have from Mank for any collection and a great source of reference for fellow writers. (My friend and I were recently interested in learning more about director Roy William Neill and Mank’s chapter on The Black Room contained the most information we could find on the man!)
It seems the better books on horror films tend to be more specific in their studies; I imagine trying to encompass the entire genre is extremely difficult. However, there are a handful of books from the last few decades that attempt a larger scope and actually pull it off.
THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HORROR MOVIES, edited by Phil Hardy, is one such work and I must say it looks good on a bookshelf. Thousands of entries cover the history of horror films from 1896 to modern times. Naturally, the entries vary in length based on the importance of the individual film but the writing style is consistent and an undercurrent of wit keeps the book from becoming boring. The book includes some strange choices by talking about films not usually labeled horror (such as Super Sleuth with Jack Oakie or the British comedy The Wrong Box) and excludes many films that one would think should be there (such as The Invisible Man—although a companion piece devoted to science fiction makes up for some of these deletions). What I really like about the work is its international feel. Much space is devoted to horror films from around the world including famous and not-so-famous flicks from Germany, Italy, Japan, etc. Many of these titles I had never heard of before reading the book (yes, I was crazy enough to read it cover to cover) and I find myself returning to it again and again for research purposes.
This brings us to the problem of the FORGOTTEN HORRORS series. Compiled and written by George E. Turner and Michael H. Price, this series attempts to shine a light on the neglected genre pieces produced by the poverty row studios. The title of this series, however, does not always ring true. First of all, though these films come from poverty row, many are not forgotten. Much has been written about such pics as White Zombie, The Vampire Bat and Maniac—these films are easily accessible and hardly “forgotten.” Secondly, the authors’ definition of a horror film is so broad it includes jungle films, murder mysteries, spy pictures, gothic westerns and even some gangster pics. While its nice to see so many obscure films get their chance in the spotlight, the reader can still become frustrated by the lack of true horror films discussed in the volumes. Still, any book that introduces readers to films they have never heard of before and inspires them to seek out those pics can’t be all bad. The first volume of FORGOTTEN HORRORS is definitely the best. It’s a bit more focused on horror than the subsequent volumes (which eventually explore such non-horror topics as the Charlie Chan series and the Kitty O’Day films) and the writing has not yet lapsed into the “too cool for school” tone (a mixture of superiority and failed attempts to be funny) that adds to my dislike of the series. Also, many of the true horror films get shortchanged in their entries. I’ve sought out many of the films from the first book without too much trouble and I continually find that there is so much more the authors could have talked about with many of these pics than they actually did. I sometimes wonder if they have actually seen the films they are writing about yet I admire their work ethic and the fact that the series is still chugging along and producing new books.
The books published by Midnight Marquee Press are intriguing because most of them are broad in their themes (that is not a detriment) and often consist of chapters or essays written by many authors rather than just one. This approach can be quite refreshing for it gives readers a chance to experience a variety of opinions and writing styles and keeps the books fresh and readable even when exploring old topics. Though not every book is great, most MidMar volumes are worth reading and, since they are almost all paperback, the affordable cover price makes them easily collectible. The MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES is worth having with each volume focusing on a different horror star and consisting of essays where an author writes about one of the actor’s seminal films. Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Peter Cushing have all been spotlighted and for the most part the quality of these books remains high. The Vincent Price book may be the weakest with too many of the essays regurgitating plot rather than critiquing the films or exploring Price’s roles.
My favorite MidMar books (and the one series I wish they had continued) are GUILTY PLEASURES OF THE HORROR FILM and SON OF GUILTY PLEASURES OF THE HORROR FILM edited by Gary and Susan Svehla. These books are totally fun and outrageous in tone as they shine a spotlight on many films that would never be discussed seriously anywhere else. Including such titles as The Flesh Eaters, Scared Stiff, Robot Monster and The Tingler, the books deftly combine humor with well-researched background information to provide fresh viewpoints on movies most of us would pass by. These books are for fans who truly love the genre and written by those who understand that a film does not have to be critically acclaimed to be worthwhile. These books are hip in the way that film snobs want to be—you know the kind, those who won’t watch a film unless Leonard Maltin’s guide gives it three or more stars. These people do not truly love movies but the authors who wrote for these books sure do. In fact, they go against the titles of the books—they bravely submit the bad films that make them feel good WITHOUT feeling guilty in the least! If you want to catch the fever and experience words written by true buffs then pick up these books. I can remember two entries that particularly impressed me: John Soister’s hilarious chapter on Sh! The Octopus (still my vote for the greatest title of any film ever) and John “J.J.” Johnson expressing his love for Horror Island. Reading these books made me jealous—I wanted to contribute as well! Thanks to GUILTY PLEASURES, I am now one of the writers included in some of the more recent MidMar books.
Talking of inspiration brings me to David J. Skal. Skal is perhaps my favorite horror historian and another inspiration when it came to my own writing. Like Mank, Skal’s works often read more like well-told stories rather than critical studies and his writing style is incredibly easy and approachable. I enjoy all of his work including the documentaries he produced for the Universal Monsters DVD collections. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Skal back in 1997. I was new to writing and entered an essay on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein for the Dracula Centennial celebration. The essay won second place and since the ceremonies were being held in Los Angeles, I had a chance to receive my writing award in person. David J. Skal was the presenter and looking back, I think I was more excited about meeting him than I was about winning an award. I only got to speak to him for a minute but I was able to tell him how much I enjoyed his work and how it had inspired me.
Many have mentioned how amazing and important Skal’s book HOLLYWOOD GOTHIC: THE TANGLED WEB OF DRACULA FROM NOVEL TO STAGE TO SCREEN is and no one can deny that Skal is the expert on Stoker’s classic creation. But the book that truly impressed me and knocked me out of my socks was THE MONSTER SHOW. Subtitled A CULTURAL HISTORY OF HORROR, the book takes it cue from Daniels’ LIVING IN FEAR by tracing the history of the horror film and how it both affected and reflected the changing times. Starting with silent films and Tod Browning and ending with The Terminator and Silence of the Lambs, Skal continually surprises the reader with skillfully deducted viewpoints and conclusions about horror and culture as well as new takes on old ideas. The first time I read it, I could not put it down and I continue to recommend it to those who are either looking for an introduction to the horror film or just looking for a good read. I have given the book as a gift more times than I can remember hoping that friends and family will experience the same wonder I did when I read it. I remember being particularly bowled over by the observation that Lon Chaney’s misshapen characters from the silent era hit a nerve because of the soldiers deformed during World War I and by the idea that vampire films reached new heights of popularity when AIDS became an epidemic.
Skal’s conclusions make sense and, as a reader, I was almost ashamed by not seeing these connections before. Often, Skal seems to be stretching his points which sometimes work (he view of an ad for Aurora’s monster model kits is one of subliminal messages about masturbation) and sometimes do not (Michael Jackson as a modern day Lon Chaney) but he is never dull and he always stays within the realms of common sense and proper research. THE MONSTER SHOW is an amazing work and should be required reading for every horror fan. Best of all, it’s fun to read and just as entertaining as the films it discusses.
So that’s my list of the best books written about the horror genre. I hope someone out there will find it useful. I also hope that this will spark some discussion and arguments. Just remember that the list is not complete—somewhere out there, someone is slaving over the next great critical study of the horror genre and offering new ideas and fresh perspectives. I for one can’t wait to read it!

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