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Thursday, December 13, 2012

VOYA on Alex Van Helsing: "Fast Moving Plot And Gripping Action"

Here's a Christmas present I wasn't expecting-- our good friends at VOYA, who named Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising a "Best of 2010," have weighed in on The Triumph of Death!
You can catch the rest in the December issue of VOYA. You can also find them on Facebook!

"This third Alex Van Helsing book is packed full of action and continues to deliver character development with all the same likable characters... with a fast-moving plot and gripping action adventure, making it a most enjoyable, perfectly entertaining novel. ...Alex still copes and adapts using his special abilities and deals with just how special and unique he is in the fight against evil.Hopefully, the author will decide not to end Alex Van Helsing as a trilogy and instead continue entertaining readers with more adventures and vampire mythology, similar to Colfer's Artemis Fowl. This excellent book is a must-have for all libraries, especially where horror fiction is hot." 

Thanks, guys!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dark Shadows Visual Companion: Get it for the Gothic Vampire Freak in Your Life

It's no secret that I'm a Dark Shadows freak, although I came late to the party. I first discovered the 60s vampire soap opera a few years ago and instantly loved it. There's something hypnotic about the show-- go watch a few episodes on Netflix or DVD and you can get sucked into the sheer otherworldly gothicness of it all: the spooky harbor town, the winding corridors of the family mansion haunted by ghosts and vampires. And to me the fact that it's a daily soap opera only contributes to the magic-- the falseness of the sets, the cardboard and wobbliness, makes the unreal strangely more real. I also really admired the 2012 version-- in my review I wrote:
Tim Burton's Dark Shadows knows the whole terrain of the show, and it knows more. It knows that it can have it both ways, parodying the show while constantly showing such familiarity that the jokes feel genuinely affectionate. It knows that somehow 1972 is funnier than 1966, so we get to see Barnabas come back to a world of the Carpenters and Alice Cooper. It knows that Johnny Depp is not Jonathan Frid, so his Barnabas is completely different-- a hilarious meditation on vampires in general, a reptilian, cursed, alien creature, whereas Frid's Barnabas was a rather discreet vampire most of the time, no more alien than JR Ewing. Depp is funny here, and is in almost every scene. And man, it knows the gothic tradition. The brooding house, the tortured young ingenue, the secret pathways. If you feel you've seen all of Burton's tricks before, think of it this way: all of his tricks belong here, in Dark Shadows. Fans of the show should love this adoring letter to Collinwood.
I felt the way I did because Tim Burton has the same strange fascination with the show, and his movie is an astonishing homage. So now I just got the Christmas present of all presents for Dark Shadows fans: the Dark Shadows Visual Companion. This is a heck of a coffee table book-- a visual tour through the making of the film, with sections on the cast, the writing, special effects, costumes, and more. My favorite is a pair of photographs--on pages 8 and 20-- full cast portraits, each with star Barnabas (Frid and Depp, respectively) in the center. I can't make you love DARK SHADOWS-- but if you do, you will love this book and go back to it often.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Creepshow! Stephen King Retrospective Continues

The Castle Dracula Podcast continues its Stephen King Retrospective with Creepshow in a SUPERSIZED episode!
Hear our latest episode:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Happy Halloween: Download Halloween Man vs. Invisible Man FREE at Indyplanet

Hey Gang- if you've heard me rant about how wonderful Halloween Man is, you MUST go check out Indyplanet Digital, which is having a Halloween special on Drew Edward's fantastic indy comic-- including my recent favorite Halloween Man vs. Invisible Man, collected, FREE. About that one I recently wrote:
Drew Edwards completes the four-part monster bash between Halloween Man, the zombie with a heart of gold and a Reed-Richards-smart girlfriend faces off against HG Wells' most evil creation, The Invisible Man. I've really been enjoying this story because it's played like a monster procedural. ...with Halloween Man investigating a series of attacks in the leather district of Halloween Man's home, Solar City. Soon it became clear that "The Terror" was obsessed with the clientele of the leather bars and could attack them with near-impunity because the police had no interest in patrolling the district.
That left Solomon (Halloween Man) to pick up the search, one outsider looking after a community of outsiders. But it turned out that The Terror was actually none other than the insane Griffin, the sadistic, brilliant scientist who created a formula to turn himself invisible, and that has now rendered him impotent and insane. This four-part story has been illustrated by Sergio Calvet, who I think brings just the right quirky, even cartoonish tone to the book. His is one of my favorite interpretations of Halloween Man yet, handling horror, violence and tenderness equally well. This is great stuff. Halloween Man continues to be a favorite independent comic of mine and one of the few that I think holds up next to any new comic on the stands this week. Definitely check it out if you haven't had a taste.
So now is your chance to sample this comic that I LOVE-- and I say that without a penny of payola-- for free, so check it out!

Friday, October 12, 2012

"Harvey" at Level Ground Arts Theater in Dallas: Oh So Pleasant

"Good heavens, man! Haven't you any righteous indignation?"
"Oh, Doctor, years ago my mother used to say to me... 'In this world you can be oh, so smart, or oh, so pleasant.' For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant."
I have wanted to see Harvey, Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, since I was a child, but it's not a play that turns up very often. That's a sad thing because this is a beautiful play: the story of Elwood Dowd, a man who confounds his family because he insists that he is always accompanied by a gigantic invisible rabbit, Harvey is always able to bring me close to tears with the serene wisdom of its central character.
Elwood, played here by Dick Monday, is not actually insane, although his family at various times wants him committed, and he is not naive. What you have in Elwood is a man who has absorbed the bitter lessons of life and responded with an entire way-- a dao of Dowd, if you will-- that involves kindness towards everyone he encounters. Elwood is a brave character. He knows what people think of him. This is better. There is a central monologue where you get a glimpse of the inner workings of Elwood, who knows that the people he meets in bars need him as much as he needs his giant rabbit friend; they need him because they must tell someone of "the big, terrible things they have done, and the big, wonderful things they will do, all very large, because no one ever brings anything small into a bar."
Monday delivers these lines in a pitch-perfect performance in the same intimate theater space as a screwball cast rotates around him: Elwood's hyperventilating sister (played with 1950s fusssiness by Laura Jones), his conniving but ultimately lonely niece Myrtle May (my fellow UD alum  Audrey Ahern), a pair of would-lovers in denial (Megan Ruth Nieves and Robert Shores as nurse and doctor), Shawn Patrello as a renowned psychiatrist who just wants time to stop and maybe his own invisible rabbit, and clown (really! she's been a clown!) Tiffany Riley playing two different non-clown women, a stooped old socialite and a prim younger socialite who is instantly floored by the charm of Elwood.

You know what comes next after Harvey? The next production will be the holiday play Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. He's aided by a
That's the sort of thing you get at the Level Ground Arts Theater, a company founded by writer/director Bill Fountain, and it's clear that Fountain has a singular, almost quixotic vision. I said I wanted to see Harvey and hadn't had the chance-- and yet here it is. I've watched with something like wonder as LGA has brought us plays of Carnival of Souls (a harrowing, chilling production based on the 1962 cult film but transplanted to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Metropolis (performed silent, to music), and even cult oddities like Manos, the Hands of Fate. The work of this playhouse is so approachable and yet utterly insane that it reminds me of Elwood, the friend of Harvey: Level Ground Arts begs to be followed because there are wistful visions and strange surprises here.
I forgot to mention: Fountain shows up in Harvey, too, in an almost-cameo as a cab driver who gets to drive home the lesson of the play with a few lines of dialogue, that sometimes the mad are worth listening to, and even following.
Harvey plays weekends Level Ground Arts Theater in Dallas until Saturday October 27. Make it a date. It is both smart and pleasant, a rare combination.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

BiblioJunkies' Shel on Triumph of Death: modern day Hardy Boys with high tech gadgets and vampires

We have a great new review of THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH from our old friends at Bibliojunkies. Shel writes:

This third installment of ALEX VAN HELSING has Alex and a mysterious new friend, Astrid, trying to stop the “Triumph of Death” a spell which would create darkness and allow vampires to essentially take over the world...
As with the rest of the series, The Triumph of Death was fast-paced action-adventure and completely irresistible.  Alex is such a lovable character and the world created by Henderson is so much fun.  Probably the most mature 14 year old I can think of Alex's adventures are great for all ages.  I've recommended this series to people from age 6 to adults in their 50s and 60s.  Whenever I recommend the AVH series to someone, I tell them to think of modern day Hardy Boys with high tech gadgets and vampires.
I know the book description says that this is the final installment in the series, but I really hope that isn’t so.  I would hate to say goodbye to Alex and friends!   I have been thinking all day that I cannot be the only person who thinks AVH would make a great movie or tv series...
Hardy Boys. See that? It's like she read my mind. That's what I really want to do here, adventure stories like I used to read. Personally, I love wide-open series like REACHER and Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, and that was what I've tried to emulate-- a world where instead of one epic story for the characters, you have a set of characters who conceivably can go on forever.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Flesh and Blood Book 2 from Robert Tinnell and Neil Vokes

I just finished reading Book 2 of Flesh and Blood from Monsterverse comics and it's fantastic (although for mature readers only!)
What have we here, if you haven't heard of it? Flesh and Blood is a "monster mash" comics series that seems to literally take place in the Hammerscape, that weird universe reflected in British horror films of the late fifties through the seventies (but you know that, right?) But these comics really do seem to inhabit Hammer acreage, stitched together with cords from vampire and horror literature.
The story features:

  • Baron Frankenstein-- the Peter Cushing version from Curse of Frankenstein, etc.
  • Carmilla and Laura of the Karnstein Cycle
  • A young Van Helsing who does not resemble Peter Cushing, or else that would get confusing
  • Dracula
  • Flying vampires a la Van Helsing, the movie
-- in a timeline that carefully tries to stitch all of these characters together. If you were to ask me, how long before Dracula does Carmilla take place, I'd say, oh, anywhere from thirty to fifty years. And could you use the characters in both stories together? Yes. Does the timeline matter? Yes, but most storytellers wouldn't care. The team, Robert Tinnell and Neil Vokes, cares: we get a young Van Helsing in the Carmilla period and an older Van Helsing in the Dracula period. I mean: wow.

Lurid, violent, crazily action-packed and literate about every piece of vampire and monster lore, this series is just maddeningly cool. Well done!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Gone Writing, but Find Me on Facebook, iTunes and the Web

I am taking a break from blogging in order to finish a book, but don't forget to find me these places:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Sexy Vampire Retrospective: Blood & Roses (1960)

The Castle Dracula Podcast kicks off its Sexy Vampire Retrospective with Blood & Roses (1960).
Hear our latest episode:

Here is the amazing dream sequence mentioned so much in the podcast:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Awesome blog discovery: Midnight Only

I was looking for production stories about BLOOD & ROSES (1960), which we'll be reviewing this week at the Castle Dracula Podcast, and came across a blog I absolutely recommend: Midnight Only.

Midnight Only specializes in reviews of groovy 60s and 70s thriller, SF and horror movies. Hammer horror? Check. Planet of the Apes sequels? Absolutely. Weird Eurotrash? Totally. Check Midnight Only out!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ms. Yingling loves Alex Van Helsing: Triumph of Death

Head on over to Ms. Yingling Reads, a blog focused on books for middle school readers (especially boys) for a new review of Alex Van Helsing: The Triumph of Death!

John Wilson said it best: things have to blow up in the first chapter, and Mr. Henderson never forgets this. So many strengths in his writing-- good action, lots of travel to exotic places, a tiny bit of romance, good friends, supportive but not intrusive adults, and in this case, a fairly thought provoking mystery. Excellent stuff. This series is a must have for my middle schoolers who love the Cirque du Freak series.

Check out the rest!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Hear the Castle Dracula Podcast on Omen III: The Final Conflict!

The Castle Dracula Podcast wraps up its Evil Baby Retrospective with Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981) starring Sam Neill!
This time regular panelist Julia Guzman is on the road and we're joined by special guest Skylanders writer Adam Foshko.
Hear our latest episode:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Podcast on The Omen!

The Castle Dracula Podcast continues its Evil Baby Retrospective with The Omen (1976)!
Hear our latest episode:

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Castle Dracula Podcast on Rosemary's Baby!

The Castle Dracula Podcast kicks off its Evil Baby Retrospective with Rosemary's Baby! You can hear us return to our horror roots after our exploration of Hitchcock, this time with the story of the Caped Crusader facing his most deadly supernatural foe, Dracula.

Hear our latest episode:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Launch Day for Alex Van Helsing: The Triumph of Death!

Launch day for the latest Alex Van Helsing adventure is here, which means not only can you find a copy, but we got a new review from Examiner:

The Triumph of Death is a mixture of action, supernatural and mystery, and was reminiscent in some parts of the winding, clue-laden plot ofThe Da Vinci Code, with plenty of vampires, of course. Plot twists abound, the last of which has been building for three books, and readers will find themselves satisfied at the end of this series.

Check it out!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Podcast on The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)

The Podcast returns with The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)! You can hear us return to our horror roots after our exploration of Hitchcock, this time with the story of the Caped Crusader facing his most deadly supernatural foe, Dracula.

Hear our latest episode:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Podcast Takes on Vertigo

The Castle Dracula Podcast continues its Alfred Hitchcock Film Series with VERTIGO!

Vertigo is the story of a retired police detective suffering from acrophobia who is hired as a private investigator to follow the wife of an acquaintance to uncover the mystery of her peculiar behavior.

Don't forget that whenever we schedule a call you can join in live and ask questions by going to the Castle Dracula Podcast web page of the podcast and launching the chat. Our next episode will be announced soon!

Hear our latest episode:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Review: Mexican Bestiary

I am a sucker for legends from around the world-- a whole chapter in the new Alex Van Helsing book involves Alex attending a school where he learns to tell the Scottish centaur-like nuckalavee from the flying-head-with-bat-ears chonchon. And up until now I only had a couple of really great resources. Now there's one more, and it's a pleasure to read: Mexican Bestiary by David Bowles and Noe Vela is a brand new guide to legendary creatures of all shapes and sizes from South of the Border. Published by the nonprofit cultural organization Valley Artistic Outreach, the book presents weird and wonderful myth in both English and Spanish with facing pages.

The stories are all told with a campfire-like flair:
Bird Woman: Since the late 1800s there have been reports of a strange bird woman or bird man around Monterey...
Charro: Throughout Mexico stories are told of a skeletal man or ghost dressed in a black and silver suit and mounted on a massive black stallion...
Black Dogs: Black Dogs, also called cadejos, are demonic beasts that lurk in alleys, graveyards, or other dark places waiting to attack...
For me, books like this are a necessity. I mine them for new ideas. But I recommend this one because of its particular regional flair. It speaks to me of the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico, of dust and sun and cool nights and demons that walk the earth. Feathered coyotes and devils at the dance, chupacabras and horsemen that warn of impending plague. I really recommend Mexican Bestiary and hope you pick it up.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Scifichick: Alex Van Helsing: Triumph of Death "wild ride of action-packed adventure, mystery, and fast-paced thrills."

We got our very first blog review of Alex Van Helsing: The Triumph of Death from SciFiChick, who says:

Alex Van Helsing teams up with a new classmate (who happens to be a witch) after discovering that a vampire queen is planning an apocalypse that will turn the world dark. ...

Henderson’s imaginative characters and historic literary foundation are a springboard for a wild ride of action-packed adventure, mystery, and fast-paced thrills. The creative twist on classic gothic novels are not only a fascinating center point for the story, but make me want to re-read the classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein again.
.... The Triumph of Death is certainly my favorite of the series. And the main story arc begun in the first book does have a huge twist that resolves in this climactic ending. ...
 Read the whole thing here!

Thanks SciFiChick! And who knows, maybe there will be more Alex. Or Ronnie, Alex's sister, who shows up in this one, or at least helps out by remote.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hitchcock Film Series: Psycho

The Castle Dracula Podcast continues its Alfred Hitchcock Film Series with with PSYCHO!

Psycho is a 1960 American suspense/horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock …based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. The film depicts the encounter between a secretary, Marion Crane (Leigh), who goes to a secluded motel after embezzling money from her employer, and the motel's disturbed owner and manager, Norman Bates (Perkins), and the aftermath of their encounter.

Don't forget that next time we schedule a call you can join in live and ask questions by going to the Castle Dracula Podcast web page of the podcast and launching the chat. Our next episode will be announced soon!

Hear the Start of our Hitchcock Retrospective:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


The Castle Dracula Podcast has returned with a series on the suspense classics of Alfred Hitchcock, starting with THE BIRDS.

The Birds is a 1963 suspense/horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, loosely based on the 1952 story "The Birds" by Daphne du Maurier. It depicts Bodega Bay, California which is, suddenly and for unexplained reasons, the subject of a series of widespread and violent bird attacks over the course of a few days.

Don't forget that next time we schedule a call you can join in live and ask questions by going to the Castle Dracula Podcast web page of the podcast and launching the chat. Our next episode will be announced soon!

Hear the Start of our Hitchcock Retrospective:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Our First Newspaper Review Calls Triumph of Death "The Best Alex Van Helsing book so far"

Hey Gang- Today we have our first print newspaper review of Alex Van Helsing: The Triumph of Death and it ROCKS.
Book 3, Triumph of Death, opens with a dizzying, James Bond-style action piece as the plane returning Alex to school is hijacked by vampires that hack a Polidorium computer and disable the cockpit, requiring Alex to fight them in freefall without a parachute. After surviving this harrowing experience, he gets to briefly catch up with his friends Paul, Sid and Minhi (and meet new student Astrid Gretelian) before the vampire organization known as the Scholomance attacks the Swiss town of Secheron. Throwing a veil of darkness around the town, the vampires—under the command of Elle, Alex’s undead nemesis—commence to construct a bizarre tableau heralding the arrival of Claire Clairmont, resurrected queen of the dead and former lover of Lord Byron, now known as the vampire Icemaker. The Scholomance is finally driven off by the Polidorium with help from Alex and Astrid, who turns out to be a young agent of the Hexen (a world-wide organization of witches to which Alex’s mother belongs). ...

Triumph is the best of the series so far, expanding the mythos and forcing Alex to face the implications of his choices in rewarding, resonant ways. The book is still action-packed and fast-moving, but the horror and indignation Alex feels—not only toward the vampires, but also about the measures humans must take to fight them—elevate the narrative, adding depth and gravitas. All the hallmark Henderson genre nods are in place, and literate fans won’t be able to stop smiling. My only complaint? I’d love Harry Potter-length novels in this universe. The ride is over too fast! Triumph of Death will be released in hardcover on July 24.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Best "Fahrenheit 451 Covers" from @Slate

Slate has a great slideshow on the best covers of Fahrenheit 451, the Ray Bradbury masterpiece that has sold over 10 million copies.

Check it out.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Very cool blog: Too Much Horror covers reviews, cover art

Here's a really wonderful blog I just came across-- Too Much Horror, which focuses on horror books and media from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Check out this fantastic post on Daphne DuMaurier covers and this one on alternate Richard Matheson's Hell House covers.
I really like this blog's sensibility of enjoying the images that book covers put in our heads, and how sometimes those images are utterly absurd.

Definitely check it out!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

DARK SHADOWS 2012-- An Unlikely, Perfect Gothic Concoction

I saw Dark Shadows this weekend-- when you have little girls, the prospect of going to a new movie relates less to when the movie opens than when you can find a babysitter-- and I loved it. Right at the start, as director Tim Burton's camera follows a train through New England woods to the haunting sounds of the Moody Blues, I turned to my wife and said, "Okay, I already want this on Blu-Ray."
Mind you I'm a huge fan of the 1960s soap opera, though I came to it late, and that should actually count against this film. I was a huge fan of the 1960s show The Avengers, and I was expecting to hate the 1998 movie version even before it turned out to be terrible. I felt the same way about The Saint, which updated the -- hey!-- 1960s detective series starring pre-Bond Roger Moore, in a role so full of wit and irony it was probably better for him than Bond.
But Tim Burton's Dark Shadows doesn't make the mistakes that The Avengers and The Saint make, for several reasons. For one thing, both of those movies seemed to have been written by people with only a cursory knowledge of the source material, as if maybe they'd read a memo prepared by a staffer. The Avengers made no attempt to copy the smirking flirtation between Steed and Peel or the fun rhythm of the show, and the Saint was a generic actioner that tossed  the detective stories that always propelled that show. But there was something worse: if you knew nothing about the source material, you were left with weird, bad movies that existed for no reason anyone could make out. (And my gosh, the Avengers is terrible. Go back and watch it and let me know if you don't think it might be missing a reel somewhere.)
Dark Shadows, though; this is something else. I had fears it would be Avengers bad when I heard it would be a comedy. Dark Shadows was never played for laughs in the 60s. If you watch it on Netflix-- and really you totally should, starting with Episode 211, when Barnabas first appears-- you'll see what an oddball piece it was, so perfectly gothic, narrated by a young governess who has, in fine gothic tradition, come to a great house of dark secrets. It is in black and white, on strange wobbly sets, filmed live-to-tape, and there's a wonderful feeling that this that you're looking at is another, stranger world you can get lost in. Look at the number of Barnabas' entrance-- the show had already run for over 200 episodes before the secretive vampire first appeared, run with its world of crashing surf and ghosts who walked.
Barnabas the vampire took it up a notch, though, scheming against members of the family and longing for the return of his beloved Josette. He was a stone killer, too.
(There was also one movie based on the soap already, in 1970-- see my blog post about House of Dark Shadows.)
Tim Burton's Dark Shadows knows the whole terrain of the show, and it knows more. It knows that it can have it both ways, parodying the show while constantly showing such familiarity that the jokes feel genuinely affectionate. It knows that somehow 1972 is funnier than 1966, so we get to see Barnabas come back to a world of the Carpenters and Alice Cooper. It knows that Johnny Depp is not Jonathan Frid, so his Barnabas is completely different-- a hilarious meditation on vampires in general, a reptilian, cursed, alien creature, whereas Frid's Barnabas was a rather discreet vampire most of the time, no more alien than JR Ewing. Depp is funny here, and is in almost every scene.
And man, it knows the gothic tradition. The brooding house, the tortured young ingenue, the secret pathways. If you feel you've seen all of Burton's tricks before, think of it this way: all of his tricks belong here, in Dark Shadows.
Fans of the show should love this adoring letter to Collinwood.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Monitor: Alex Van Helsing Series Review; likes "quippy, Whedonesque dialogue"

David Bowles of the Texas newspaper The Monitor turns in a fantastic review of the first two Alex Van Helsing books. Here are some highlights, but check out the original at the Monitor site. I like his description of Voice of the Undead:

Book 2, Voice of the Undead, begins just a few weeks later. The action kicks in almost immediately: Alex is attacked by blood-sucking worms; his fight against them results in Glenarvon’s being partially destroyed by fire. The boys of the boarding school are temporarily relocated to LaLaurie, a nearby girls’ academy attended by Minhi, one of the members of Alex’s “Scooby gang.” Soon a new “big bad” arrives: Ultravox, a vampire who can control humans with his voice (and whose identity is just as clever as that of Icemaker). Setting the story at LaLaurie allows for some cool meta-jabs at the Twilight series (Ultravox employs written horror stories to infect girls’ minds with post-hypnotic suggestions and use them as weapons), but what makes Voice especially entertaining is the deeper exploration of the secondary characters; the quippy, Whedonesque dialogue; and the arrival of Alex’s parents.
Adolescent boys will particularly enjoy reading the action-packed, fast-moving books, but adult fans of the supernatural are encouraged to read them as well. This series is more respectful of lore, tradition and geekdom than most other YA vampire novels: horror fans and literature buffs alike will be rewarded by the references that Henderson includes.

Check out the rest!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors on Netflix Streaming

Netflix has recently added a bunch of Amicus Anthologies, which were wonderful, colorful, spooky horror anthologies made in the UK in the late 60s and 70s. They are all fantastic, but I just watched Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, and I recommend it. Welcome to the groovy horror age of British cinema, starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Donald Sutherland.

Why do I love these movies? I love them for their earnestness, their viviv color, and their modern settings, which are so dated now (fashions, sets, music, even editing) that they form a special treat all their own.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Gothic Masters: Mistress of Mellyn (1960)

I found myself reading the 1960 Victoria Holt potboiler MISTRESS OF MELLYN because I've been on a gothic kick recently. I've been doing research for a new project and took a side trip to explore the origins of modern gothic literature, and MELLYN is a key book.
Eleanor Hibbert, the woman behind
Victoria Holt.
Published in 1960, the book merges major themes from Daphne Du Maurier's 1948 Rebecca and of course Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Just oozing atmosphere and gloom; MISTRESS OF MELLYN is about Miss Marty Leigh, a woman of good family and embarrassed means who takes a job as the governess in an imposing mansion called Mount Mellyn, where lately the locals have come to suspect the master, mysterious Lord Connan, of murdering his deceased wife. There are gossipy servants and secret passages; it's all exactly as you expect and it's fantastic. People tend to talk of this as "Victoria Holt's first book," but for what it's worth, Victoria Holt was a pseudonym; this is actually English scribe Eleanor Hibbert's thirtieth or so novel. She was a busy gal; she published at least one more novel under yet another name in 1960, the year of Mistress of Mellyn, alone.

But Mistress of Mellyn is a classic, incorporating the key elements of gothic so well defined in the discussion here:

  • A Young Heroine who is sent to
  • A Big House located in the middle of
  • A Wilderness, owned by . . .
  • A Threatening Patriarchal/Matriarchal Authority Figure, who has
  • Endangered Children Who Need a Governess and who are plagued by
  • Supernatural Elements, all complicated by
  • A Demanding, Aloof Hero with the Sensitivity of a Wombat (Wikipedia: “They can be awkwardly tamed in a captive situation, and even coaxed into being patted and held, possibly becoming quite friendly. . . . However, their lack of fear means that they may display acts of aggression if provoked, or if they are simply in a bad mood.)
Anyway-- I've also been obsessed with gothic covers from the 60s and 70s recently, so here are some swell earlier covers for this mysterious, charming book.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What I Forgot About Dracula

Since Alex Van Helsing takes place in the universe of Dracula, students I talk to often ask about the book. I'm happy to talk to any class about Dracula-- and for now, here are some thoughts on the book!

What I Forgot About Dracula
by Jason Henderson

Dracula has been on my mind recently and I've been reading "Dracula," the Stoker novel, again.... Dracula has always been a fascinating character for me, and it's strange to occasionally revisit the Victorian-- oh, so very Victorian-- novel of the Count's origin. Better and better-read writers than I have analyzed the book in detail and I won't challenge their accomplishments here-- as a Lit layman, I never could. Instead I wanted to write as a layman who thought he remembered a lot about "Dracula"-- and didn't. 

In the book, lawyer Harker goes on a long and creepy journey to visit Count Dracula, a "Szekely" nobleman from Transylvania. The trip he makes is straight out of fable-- the carriage seems to criss-cross back over ground it had already covered and by the time Harker arrives at the castle he is in no real place but a non-place, like the non-place of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. Which is just as well, because it's clear to me that Bram Stoker really didn't care whether people would be avidly looking up Transylvania and cross-referencing it with Dracula. Stoker makes assertions that serve his novel but not scholarship-- he has Van Helsing insist that this Dracula must be "that old Voivode Dracula" of Transylvania. The assertion has continued forever-- Frank Langella in the 1979 DRACULA says, "I am a Szekel," a Transylvanian-- and Coppola's DRACULA also repeats the idea that Vlad the Impaler ruled Transylvania.
Dracula the Transylvanian exists in the novel only. Prince Dracula, Vlad IV, ruled Wallachia, which like Transylvania was a neighboring province of Rumania. Dracula's ethnicity was Wallach, and his fights with the Turks happened in Wallachia. This matters because it's like writing a story about Mussolini coming back to life and saying he was from France, and then having every work thereafter talk about "that wicked Frenchman, Mussolini."

(Before we get really geeky, let me hasten to acknowledge that Dracula was in fact born in Transylvania. Likewise, Che Guevara the Cuban revolutionary was born in Argentina. History is nothing if not full of complicated detail.) But then, but then--in the novel, Transylvania is a non-place. Transylvania is not-England, and that's good enough.

There's a fascinating speech by Van Helsing in Chapter 23 in which the doctor says Dracula has a "child-brain" as far as his powers are concerned, and that Dracula is teasing out his abilities, growing more confident and more powerful. It's strange that Dracula would have waited the 400 years between his assassination and the novel's events to start boning up, but it's a wonderful notion-- Dracula's powers can evolve. They do so in the novel; Dracula gets younger and seems to improve in being able to move around as mist. I love this idea, that Dracula by 2003 would be powered up a great deal more than he is at the novel's end, when if we are to believe the entry, he is slain by a Bowie knife. I find, in fact, that my own child-brain is now clouded with years of movies and analysis that suggest a myriad of possibilities for why Stoker allowed Dracula to die by knife when one would presume a big stake through the heart would have been the right choice. Fred Saberhagen famously suggested, as have others, that he doesn't die at the end, but instead disappears and lets the good guys think he died. Sure, why not.

It's funny how much our familiarity with movies influences what we remember of a book. But there it is: in the novel, here's what happens:

  1. Harker visits Dracula to give him papers regarding the house Dracula is to buy in London.
  2. Dracula takes Harker captive and sics weird vampire women on him, and leaves Harker there.
  3. Dracula goes to England to move into his new place, and starts dining on two local women -- both of whom are connected to Harker.
  4. The rest of the novel happens.

So when Harker finally escapes and gets back to England, he's able to provide crucial details about Dracula
Soooo: why does Dracula happen to attack only people actuallyconnected to the guy he left chained up back at the castle? How is it that Dracula's whole clever plan falls apart because he only manages to run into people who know one another? Heck if anybody knows; it seems to be a complete co-incidence, or perhaps the foresight of God placing the tools of Dracula's destruction in his path. Which is a very Victorian novel idea. But it's the sort of co-incidence that bugs the heck out of screenwriters, hence was born the romance gambit.
Different stage and screen versions have dealt with the problem in various ways, some of which seem to seep into people's memory. The play on which the 1931 and 1979 Universal Draculas were based simply collapses everyone into one household, and Dracula winds up there and meets everyone at once. The 1973 Richard Matheson script posits that Dracula saw Jonathan Harker's picture of Lucy, Harker's fiancee Mina's friend, and thought Lucy was the re-incarnation of Dracula's dead bride. Thus he goes looking for Lucy having seen her picture. The 1992 Coppola film employs Matheson's "re-incarnation obsession" device as well (giving no credit to Matheson) because it seems to work, although Coppola switches the object of Dracula's obsession to Mina, which makes sense organizationally because Mina is the last victim. But Dracula's attack on Mina in the novel has been strangely remembered.

You'll recall in Coppola that this is the moment when the panting Mina says, "Take me awaaay from all this deathhhh." Or something. In Chapter 21 of the book, Mina awakens to find Dracula leaning over her, having knocked husband Jonathan Harker unconscious. Dracula says, "Silence! If you make a sound I shall take him and dash his brains out before your very eyes." He reveals he has attacked her before, explaining the lethargy she's been feeling, and as he bends towards her Mina tells us, in perhaps her most oft-quoted line, "I was bewildered, and strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him." Did not want to hinder him. Modern readers have assumed that Mina's deeper, lustier, more fully sexualized self is attracted to Dracula, but remember, this is Stoker's Dracula, rank of breath, hair on palms, and all. Here's a fun party question: If Dracula put a spell on Mina is she still legitimately attracted to him? What does it mean to be under someone's spell? Isn't that a good thing? Heck if I know. But I do know that Dracula just threatened to crush Mina's husband's head until his brain leaks out unless she keeps her yap shut, which seems somehow less charming than Coppola's film would suggest.
There's more-- this relationship which so many people call "central" to the novel has so many angles we forget. Remember the wonderful 1979 Langella Dracula, who tells the Mina character (there called Lucy, because that movie swaps the names), "Now it is you, my best beloved one." People love this idea of the "best beloved one" of Dracula, or rather imagining what sort of woman would rise to the rank of best beloved one. But whatever. In the book, Dracula doesn't say that. He says this, (italics mine) in Chapter 21:
You know now, and they know in part already, and will know in full before long, what it is to cross my path. They should have kept their energies for use closer to home. Whilst they played wits against me, against me who commanded nations, and intrigued for them, and fought for them, hundreds of years before they were born, I was countermining them. And you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, kin of my kin, my bountiful wine-press for a while, and shall be later on my companion and my helper. You shall be avenged in turn, for not one of them but shall minister to your needs. But as yet you are to be punished for what you have done. You have aided in thwarting me. Now you shall come to my call. When my brain says "Come!" to you, you shall cross land or sea to do my bidding. ...
Dracula goes after Mina because she's their favorite. Not his. Keen readers will point out that Dracula does suggest that later Mina might be his "companion," but no monogamy on Dracula's part is suggested. Dracula has a box of companions back home, in fact. In Chapter 3 the Count tells the three castle-bound, Harker-panting, baby-eating brides/sisters/whatever they are, "Yes, I too can love… and I shall love again," but come on. Who does this guy love? What in heaven's name would Dracula's favorite be?

After all, this is Vlad the Impaler we're talking about, a guy who loved to impale things so much he impaled rats when he couldn't have people. Who soothed his nerves mutilating birds. A guy who sliced open a pregnant woman who accused him of being the father, who impaled infants atop their mothers, who killed thousands of his own citizens in a day, who solved his poverty problem by burning all the poor people alive in one locked building. This is the real guy I'm talking about. If a movie wishes to show us a Dracula tied to the real Dracula and the novel, are we really to imagine Mina would accept the man who -- but actually I can barely type the worst of his atrocities. History's Dracula was a monster who did massively terrible, perverse, sick things on an almost unimaginable scale, because he wanted to, and because his position and cruelty kept him long free of punishment. Dracula was not a misunderstood man, as the Coppola version, and the Badham/Langella version, and the Palance version, and on, and on, would have us believe.
And the novel suggests no such thesis. Actually, the best proof of this comes from within the novel, as Dracula feeds a baby-- a live baby-- to the three vampire women, then sics wolves on the baby's screaming, terrified mother. Dracula is a villain, albeit an attractive one, and it is irresponsible to suggest otherwise. Again, if Mina falls for Dracula, what will she say when she learns about the mother and the wolves?
It's all beside the point. Stoker made a novel with a massive character, although the character in the novel accomplishes little of what he sets out to do. (He gives up his invasion fairly quickly.) But looking over Stoker's notes tells us a great deal. Stoker worked on the novel for nearly a decade as characters came and went from the outline, subplots formed and disappeared. But one major point remained in each and every draft: the line from Chapter 3: "Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me!" The key to Dracula, in the novel--at least to my reading, and your mileage may vary--is ownership and power. If we are attracted to this predator, it is for reasons that make far less sense-and are much harder to accept-- than most of the movies would allow.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Media Life: Listen to the Ernie Cline (Ready Player One) Interview!

You have a new episode of Media Life to listen to, and boy is it a doozy.
I was privileged to spend an hour talking to Ernie Cline, author of the simply awesome 80s-philic NY Times Best Seller Ready Player One, which I reviewed when it came out:

Ready Player One is a Great American Novel.
No joke. It really is. I just finished reading Ready Player One, the debut novel from Ernest Cline, a writer I've met a billion times in Austin but that doesn't matter. Ready Player One, coming from Crown in August, is a great American novel. Every page makes you tremble in awe, that a book can so deftly and even heart-wrenchingly capture so many phenomena of modern life: the love of pop culture, the sacrifice of identity to a better, false, virtual self, the neglect of a world in exchange for a beautiful second one.
So you have to hear the interview! Ernie expounds on writing, writers, the 80s, geeking out, and even slam poetry and his favorite writing book. Check it out!
Hear the new Ernie Cline episode of the Media Life Podcast:

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cabin in the Woods Books! Grody, Amazing Spoilage!

So this week brought a couple of really cool CABIN IN THE WOODS items across my desk, especially if you're a screenwriter. Joss Whedon's screenplay for the movie appears in its entirety -- with copious crazy photographs-- in The Cabin in the Woods: The Official Visual Companion .

The book is 176 pages long with most of that taking up the screenplay, which means if you want a crash course in how the creator of Buffy writes descriptions, here it is. But the photographs are gorgeous. There's stuff on the creation of all kinds of amazing (and occasionally truly grody) effects and creatures the very existence of which would be a major spoiler. Totally recommended-- but don't flip through this if you haven't seen the movie yet!


Speaking of things not to read if you don't want to know what happens but perfect if you do or already have, I also got the Cabin in the Woods novelization by Tim Lebbon, a Stoker Award winner who has become the go-to guy for turning creepy horror cinema into creepy horror fiction (Lebbon also wrote the NY Times Best-Selling 30 Days of Night book.)