Written by: James F. Broderick
Think all the action in the horror genre is taking place at the Cineplex this summer? With all due respect to those whose lives revolve around the weekend’s latest big-screen release, I’d like to suggest an alternative activity—and one that will make your time spent sitting in the dark in multi-hued 3-D glasses even more satisfying.
As a lover of horror films myself, I’ve found that reading certain books can enhance the experience and enjoyment of immersing one’s self in a cinematic scream-fest. (And, for younger readers who might be coming across this, I feel compelled to point out that books are—or at least used to be—considered a valuable entertainment all by themselves.) So here’s a handful of books that are worthy of every horror fan’s time—submitted, like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone prologues, for your approval. (A more comprehensive critique of some classic horror-related novels is available in my book Now A Terrifying Motion Picture!)
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. If you think you know the Frankenstein story because you’ve seen the 1931 classic starring Boris Karloff, you (like the Creature in the story) are in for quite a shock. Although Frankenstein has been brought to the big screen countless times (with his next big bow anticipated in the upcoming film I, Frankenstein), few cinematic incarnations can match the book’s depth of thought, lyricism, or just plain weirdness. Shelley was only 18 when she came up with the story of a creature brought to life in a lab. Little did she know that she would be setting loose a monster that would haunt the public’s imaginations for the next two centuries. Rediscover her original spark of creativity—it’s positively electrifying.
Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus. The recent blockbuster Prometheus draws its inspiration in part from the original mythic tale of a Titan who angered the gods by stealing fire and giving it to mankind. The story, whose origins stretch back to antiquity, is credited to the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, whose dramatic instincts are matched only by his audience’s appetite for gruesomeness. The play makes an unlikely progenitor of today’s action-adventure flicks—Prometheus spends the entire play chained to a mountain, except for the end when he plunges into a chasm. For such a brutal and sadistic set-piece, the work is surprisingly cerebral—and you get bonus points for spending your summer reading something off the “Great Works” bookshelf.
The Serpent and the Rainbow, by Wade Davis. All the chatter about the “Zombie Apocalypse” might just be obscuring the fact that real-life zombies actually exist—or so argues Davis, an ethno-botanist from Harvard University who went to Haiti to investigate reports of real-life zombification. What he uncovered in his 1985 book remains shocking and grimly compelling today, a dark and devious world of vengeance, voodoo, and black magic. The book—a serious scientific study—became the basis of Wes Craven’s film of the same name (which exchanged Davis’ sobriety for a more saleable silliness). The movie is well made and good, scary fun, but after its release Davis disavowed it as so much Hollywood nonsense. Both are worth a look, but it’s the book’s grisly revelations that are worth resurrecting in the privacy of your reading room.
We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, by Philip K. Dick. This short story, which first appeared in the April 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, was the basis of both the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi romp Total Recall and this summer’s upcoming remake, starring Colin Farrell. Philip K. Dick had a unique style and vision, and though his writing has always had its detractors (flat characters, cliché-riddled prose, plot holes you could drive a hovercraft through), there are few writers whose feverish imaginations and darkly comic cosmos are so much fun to inhabit. “Wholesale” deals with the shadowlands between memory and actuality, with a central character who is either wildly heroic and fearless or a milquetoast clerk who dreams of nothing more brazen than talking back to his domineering wife. For all its brevity, there are puzzles aplenty.
The Jaws Log—30th Anniversary Edition, by Carl Gottlieb. Sharks have been around since pre-historic times but the summer blockbuster is a modern phenomenon, originating in the Summer of 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s jarring adaptation of Peter Benchley’s beach-read-from-hell, Jaws. The film became a national phenomenon and went on to become the highest grossing film of its time. It remains one of the greatest movies ever made. Gottlieb, who collaborated on the screenplay, takes the reader behind the scenes—and under the water—in a book with as many twists and turns as the shark at the center of the story. Fans of the film will have newfound respect for Spielberg’s genius and movie lovers in general will leave Gottlieb’s treatise wondering how any movie ever gets made when there are so many moving parts that threaten to derail a film’s production. The Jaws Log proves the old adage that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
James F. Broderick is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University in Jersey City. His most recent book is Now a Terrifying Motion Picture!:
Twenty-Five Classic Works of Horror Adapted from Book to Film. He lives in Glen Ridge, NJ.