Friday, November 24, 2006
Book: My money is on the giant, super-strong, un-killable guy.
I’ve praised the joys of mix-and-match style stories before. While I might be curious about a story containing Dracula, tell me that it features the Lord of Vampires going toe-to-toe with Al Capone and you’ve got my undivided attention. In The Shadow of Frankenstein, another in Dark Horse Press’s new line of Universal Monster tie-in novels, Stefan Petrucha offers readers just such a promising match-up: Jack the Ripper meets Frankenstein’s monster.
Unlike Di Filippo’s freewheeling and heavily revisionist take on the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Petrucha’s book is more overtly an extension of the Universal film franchise. It is meant to fall in between James Whale’s legendary The Bride of Frankenstein and Rowland V. Lee’s excellent 1939 follow-up, Son of Frankenstein. The novel begins with the Frankensteins, the mad doctor Henry and his long-suffering and increasingly unhinged Elizabeth, fleeing legal scrutiny and the hatred of the villagers in their native land. They are off to England with Minnie, trusty but annoying maid servant in toe. Unfortunately for them, the good doctor’s most famous bit of work tags along for the ride.
The Frankensteins and their eponymous monster get separated once they reach the shores of England. Henry, unable to let was he believes to be his dead monster rest, begins investigating the history of the brain he purchased to install within the creature. Meanwhile, the monster saves the life of a Whitechapel prostitute and is taken under her care. In one nice touch, the whores of Whitechapel, used to seeing the effects of urban squalor on their neighbors, find the monster’s horrific appearance somewhat unremarkable.
Into this mix comes Jack the Ripper. After years of retirement, the killer is once again stalking the streets of Whitechapel. Jack’s life, we discover, has been unnaturally prolonged through black magic. Sadly, for our active-senior/serial killer, the old spells just aren’t working like they used to. After encountering Frankenstein’s monster on one of his bloody patrols through the city, Jack comes to believe that, if installed in such a body, he could live forever. All Jack’s got to do is get the good doctor to see things his way. And, it turns out, Saucy Jack can be quite persuasive.
Petrucha’s novel is a fun, light romp through the universe created by the classic Frankenstein movies (and they are extremely movie-centric - if there was an allusion to the novel that started it all, I missed it). Petrucha sacrifices description and mood for a brisk and action-filled narrative that resembles less Whale’s surreal and atmospheric classics and more the crowd-pleasing, but less accomplished later entries in the series, such as 1944’s House of Frankenstein. His book is almost exclusively focused on getting his main characters into position and then letting all holy heck breaks loose. Along the way, he makes sure to hit all the archetypal scenes any self-respecting Frankenstein movie must have. You can almost imagine Petrucha with a check-list of required, archetypal scenes he needs to hit: “Body harvesting in the graveyard. Check. Frankenstein raging at God. Check. Kites training electrical wires. Check.” The presence of Jack the Ripper and the perceived needs of a presumably more bloodthirsty audience means we get considerably more gore out of Petrucha’s work than any classic Universal flick would give us, but all in all is stays true in spirit to the source material.
Not that Petrucha’s novel is without clever flourishes and nice touches. Lines from the classic films are recontextualized throughout the book to good effect. Nod and wink allusions are sprinkled about for the close reader – including my favorite, a short discussion on transferring the captured monster to Seward’s asylum. Petrucha also finds time, despite the pace of the book, to work in some excellent bits of characterization. Most notably, when we get an entire chapter’s worth of backstory on the man whose famously abnormal (“Abby someone”) brain was placed inside Frankenstein’s monster. That chapter is actually a stand out.
Overall, Shadow of Frankenstein is an entertaining tribute to classic horror icon. It is less innovative than Filippo’s entry to the series, though, if in a more narrow way, it is really no less enjoyable.