Consider Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The idea for this novel reputedly came to him in a dream. The story is very black & white, the struggle between good and evil. Yet most people consider this a tale of one man’s struggle with the perils of alcoholism. The “monster” then is to be pitied as much as feared and reviled.
Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, written by Mary Shelley in 1918 is as much as moralistic tale as a fright fest. You might remember in Greek Mythology that Prometheus, son of a Titan, stole the sacred fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals, forever changing their destiny. Woven deep into the fabric of this story is a stern warning against the arrogance of man who might overstep his bounds. As the Industrial Revolution exploded, this concern could be considered very real. Should Man play God? How far will he go in his quest for immortality? Heady stuff indeed.
Even Dracula, while certainly a dastardly monster, generates a note of sympathy. To be “undead.” To never know the sweet release of mortality. He is driven too, by a compulsion he cannot control (yet another hint of addiction).
Dracula was written in 1897, yet while the tale is certainly the most well-known, Bram Stoker was not the originator of the “aristocratic vampire.” That distinction goes to John William Polidori who published The Vampyre on April 1, 1819. The Vampyre was written on that same fateful night Frankenstein’s Monster was born. The group which included Mary Wollstonecraft (later to be Shelley), Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, all competed to write the scariest tale during an eve fraught with gloomy weather.
I also remember The Wolfman, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Here a man returns to his hometown, is attacked by a creature and is now cursed to be a monster. This is one of the only true classic horror flicks that did not come from a famous novel. Originally intended to be a vehicle for Boris Karloff, this film did manage to capture the “folklore” feel and generated a truly sympathetic monster.
Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.
Now, after the spate of Hollywood horror flicks wound down, a new breed of chills hit the town. The monsters lost their archetypal feel and crossed from the obviously fictional to a sense of potential realism that chilled the bone. I remember one sign being the emergence of such movies as The Night of The Living Dead. Although clearly “unreal” the movie stood out because The Hero Is Killed At The End. There was no positive resolution. No “whew, we made it” happy ending. That, to me anyway, marked a turning point in cinematic history.
Since then the movies have gradually become more grisly, and the focus shifted from subtle psychological transformations to guts and gore. Yikes!
Now, as All Hallow’s Eve approaches, I can’t help but feel nostalgia for a certain lost era.
My favorite “monster” book had to be Frankenstein. Yet the movie I loved most was Dracula, followed by The Wolfman.
How about you? Any favorite monster classics?