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July, 2005 : Essay:

I Was a Pre-Teen Frankenstein

Say what you will for seeing movies in theatres; I saw my first movies, what the fantasist Peter Straub calls one’s primal movies, the Ur-movies, on black-and-white TV during the 1950s. My family acquired a television set just as Hollywood movie studios started syndicating packages of old features, comedy shorts, animated cartoons, and serials. Nowadays, while other members of my generation think back fondly on Howdy Doody or Leave It to Beaver, I think back to afternoons and evenings spent in the thrall of singing cowboys, Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo, Tarzan and King Kong in their backlot jungles, Charlie Chan and the Marx Brothers at the opera, Humphrey Bogart ramming U-boats in Action in the North Atlantic, Robert Stack decimating the Luftwaffe in Eagle Squadron, Randolph Scott blasting Tokyo in Bombardier...

I didn't understand immediately that these were old movies. The Little Rascals seemed contemporaneous with the Mouseketeers, only not so regimented. I was shocked when my mother told me that Shirley Temple was a big girl now, and more harrowing discoveries followed. News of the grown-up Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer's murder in January 1959 sent such a chill through me—not even George "Superman" Reeves' death the following June affected me as deeply—that I never again took movies entirely at face value.

Yet, certain movies I saw on TV seem to have affected me permanently on a profound level. I can only imagine that the reason I still get teary-eyed during Mighty Joe Young and The Wizard of Oz, despite all I may do to resist it, is that, as I watch, I tap into the emotions I must have experienced the first time I saw those films—when I didn't necessarily expect them to end happily. The final reels of King Kong and Son of Kong had prepared me to expect that Mr. Joseph Young of Africa would, after the manner of all overgrown apes who had anything to do with the entrepreneurs portrayed by Robert Armstrong, be attacked by airplanes or drowned by a tsunami or, in any case, come to a bad end. Such war movies as The Five Sullivans and Bataan had shown me that even appealing human protagonists could get wiped out in the last reel. Thus, just I couldn't be sure, the first time around, that Dorothy (and her little dog, too) really would get home to the farm, and then even the relief I felt on seeing that she had was blighted by that round of heartbreaking farewells with the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion, any of whom struck me as more interesting and more desirable company than everybody back in Kansas.

As memorable to me as the movies I got to see is one that I didn't get to see. No amount of pleading could budge my parents when they forbade me to stay up late for a Halloween telecast of Universal Studios' 1931 version of Frankenstein, on the reasonable grounds (reasonable to grownups, anyway) that it would give me bad dreams. This argument failed to convince me because my parents had already failed to make it consistently; either they had been grossly inattentive when local TV stations served up King Kong, the Spencer Tracy version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Undying Monster, The Man From Planet X, Dr. Renault's Secret, Curse of the Cat People, and Isle of the Dead—all of which I did get to see before my tenth birthday; probably none of which disturbed me as much as did the travails of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath or James Cagney's mom-obsessed career criminal in White Heat—or, perhaps, my mother and father simply had particular grievances, dating back to their own childhood experiences in movie houses, against Universal Studios' pantheon of monsters, which included, besides Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man, too.

In any event, I spent the midnight hours of that Halloween burning with the torments of the damned: hardly an improvement over bad dreams. At school the next day, rather than merely nurse a futile envy of classmates whose parents had not stood between them and potentially psychically scarring cinematic fare, I pumped them for a plot summary and the choicer sorts of details, then went home and drew up my own Frankenstein comic book.

This masterpiece undoubtedly garbled my schoolmates' garbled accounts of Hollywood's garbled adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. Nevertheless, it had what I understood to be the story's essential elements: the grave- and gallows-robbing scientist, the hunchbacked assistant, the creepy laboratory, the stolen criminal brain, the monster's escape, the little girl's death, the burning windmill. Fortunately, I got it all down on paper and stapled together and had a moment in which to admire my handiwork before kids who had seen sequels to the 1931 opus could confuse me by mentioning the bride of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, or Abbott and Costello. For years I believed Bram Stoker’s vampiric count had got that way in consequence of a mishap with an oversized laboratory animal; only much later did I realize that the helpful classmate who told me this must have failed to distinguish between the Lugosi character who succumbs to the bite of The Devil Bat and the one that rises from a coffin in Dracula.

The time would come when I could follow my natural bent; when I reserved a portion of my discretionary income for the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland; when I reserved my Saturday evenings for Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney, George Zucco, John Carradine—whom I would regard familiarly and fondly, as slightly eccentric uncles—and then, as the local TV station exhausted the supply of spooky 1930s and 1940s programmers and started excavating the detritus of the 1950s, for Not of This Earth, Bride of the Monster, Teenage Caveman, War of the Satellites—hardly classics, but, still, in line with my tastes. The science-fiction movie boom of the 1950s had been triggered by nuclear jitters and a burgeoning space program, and, again, my parents were only very inconsistently protective of my impressionable young mind: shielding it from The Day the World Ended, Monsters From Green Hill, and Them!, yet recklessly exposing it to The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, and Rodan.

These 1950s epics, produced quickly on budgets ranging from the barely adequate to the practically nonexistent, were originally packaged as interchangeable programmers for kids' Saturday matinees and teenagers' drive-in movie dates, then relegated, interchangeable programmers still, to the Late Show, the Creature Feature, which is where I caught up with them. Even as an enthusiastic adolescent monster boomer, I realized that many were irredeemable dogs, but I also realized that some were better than they had to be, better than they ought to have been. I still think a few are worth a look any night I would really rather not watch equally ancient re-runs of, say, I Married Joan and wonder if its leading lady, too, was not of this Earth.

Would I be somebody entirely else today, writing about something entirely else this minute, if I had been allowed to watch a certain monster movie at a certain moment in my life? Well, even if my mother and father had been much more rigorously protective than they were, I would have had to live inside a hermetic bladder never to learn about movie monsters and about much else as well. What is certain is that in denying me Frankenstein, my parents' chief accomplishment, beyond the immediate end of sparing my dreams and their own sleep, was simply to sharpen my interest—a major factor, I believe, in preparing me for some kind of career as a writer of whiz-bang wonder stories of super-science.


Copyright © 2005, Steven Utley. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Utley

Steven Utley is the author of the story collections Ghost Seas (1997), The Beasts of Love (2005), and Where or When (2006), and co-editor (with Michael Bishop) of the anthology Passing for Human, forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2008.

COMMENTS!

Jul 4, 23:46 by IROSF
Discussion of Steven Utley's new essay is invited here...

The article, however, can be found over here.
Jul 5, 19:42 by Stephen Dedman
I had a similar experience with 'Creature from the Black Lagoon'. Denied the chance to stay up and watch it when I was 10, I promptly started writing my first novel - about an expedition to the Amazon in search of an unknown species of reptilian monster.

Appropriately, my copy of the Frankenstein Legacy Collection arrived this week: highly recommended (I was out-bid at the last minute on the Creature collection, alas).
Jul 5, 22:12 by Bluejack
Thought I'd mention, fans of Utley's retrospectives, may also be interested in Howard Waldrop's series of retrospectives over at InfiniteMatrix -- I know the last one posted is from February, but I recently typeset another series which should come out this summer.
Jul 11, 00:03 by susie hawes
Thanks for that link. I'm a big fan of both gentlemen. It's nice to see this.
Jul 11, 14:42 by Steven Utley
For my account of another life-changing movie experience, check out "Confessions of a Cinemasochist" over at Bewildering Stories. Here (if I do it right) is a link: issue155/cinemasochist.html

(Hi, Susie.)

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